Elections in Ethiopia – Beyond Winning (and Losing)

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Part I

1 . Introduction

Election fever is gaining momentum in Ethiopia. It is ‘Election 2015’, the 5th general election since Ethiopia’s formal adoption of the more (or less) liberal constitution of 1995 that ended the hesitant ‘transition’ from the Derg’s military rule to a western-style representative democracy[1]. The projected aim of the transition was to liberalize and pluralize the politics, to reform and resuscitate the economy, to restructure the state (through democratization and decentralization), and to transform the hitherto tenuous state-society relations. Through the constitution, the regime provided itself the legal edifice on which to ensure that transitional project is attained and a liberal democracy (expressed through representative and participatory institutions) is formally instituted. In a gesture of transforming the state, the constitution recognized national diversity, legalized collective rights such as the right to self-determination[2], and institutionalized federal non-centralization. Having ostensibly demilitarized politics [3], electoral contestation became the formal mode of contending for political power. The election fever that is steadily gripping the nation now is the symptom of that contention.

 Over the last few weeks, controversy has progressively raged over the politics and the logistics of the upcoming election. Decisions pertaining to recognition by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) of political parties with the ‘right’ leadership [4], registration of ‘qualified’ candidates [5], and ensuring the proper adherence to the relevant rules of constitutional, electoral, and political party registration laws have provoked a lot of ire among some of the parties seeking to partake in the election. Rulings over who is qualified as a candidate and which party is qualified as a contestant have unleashed a conversation over the process and speculations over the outcome of the election. In the first election debate conducted live on public television, the major ideological fault lines between the three major political parties were outlined. In the same week, we heard that some of the parties (such as the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum, alias Medrek in Amharic) were denied access to the state media (Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, EBC) on the pretext that the parties’ criticism of the media’s bias towards the incumbent is an attempt to undermine the impartiality of the media. Their petition to the NEBE has not found a response yet. Not entirely unexpectedly, tension has started to build up.

As anyone familiar with Ethiopia and its histories knows, the tension around elections is only symptomatic of deeper issues that have roots in–but never contained by–the political contestations of the past. In this piece, I offer a reflection on what election means to the various sectors of the population in the Ethiopian polity in the light of that past. I will thus reflect on what election means to the incumbent, the opposition political parties, and to the electorate, north and south. Along the way, I will also reflect on the mood in the context of which the election takes place. By drawing historical parallels between 2015 and 1915 (historical moments when two dead leaders–Meles Zenawi and Menelik II, respectively -rule from the grave in spite of the place holders whose genealogies make them unlikely successors, namely Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and Emperor Eyasu II, alias Lij/Abeto Eyasu, respectively), I will point to the continuity in the nature of the State in which the election takes place, irrespective of the appearance of change. Lastly, I will offer my points on what is beyond winning and losing this particular election, and how it affects the nature of the Ethiopian state.

The starting point of this reflection is that election is a language. It is the new language one speaks in order to secure democratic legitimacy. Posited within the confines of liberal constitutionalism, it is a particular language with the idiom and vernacular of modern representative democracy. Whoever is proficient in this language technically ‘wins’ the election. In this piece, in a rather iterative manner, I reflect on the ‘facility’ or ‘proficiency’ of the contestants in this language within the context of Ethiopia in order to imagine what is beyond winning (or losing) this election.

The thrust of my argument is that there is much more work to do about the state than partaking in the motion of election. There is more to Ethiopia than mastering the language of election. I suggest that to EPRDF election is a mode of securing a technical legitimacy. To its adversaries, it is a mode of resistance to hegemonic oppression. Some of its adversaries resist its hegemonic position if only to replace it with their own. Others resist it and the State form it embodies and represents. For this latter group, the election is, more than anything else, a gesture of negating the status quo, it is a talking back to power, an utterance of societal pain long suppressed and contained. It is a way of sustaining a lamentation. It is yet another moment of reminding Ethiopia that all is not well. For the protagonists in this election saga, especially for the ruling EPRDF, the election is merely war by other means. As such, for EPRDF, it is a mode of entrenching its power by eliminating its opponents through the technology of election. Consequently, the election has little to do with the desired transformation of the state-society relations in Ethiopia.

As a result, I argue, there is little the election can do to tackle outstanding political issues that are contained in the unfinished business of state-building. In particular, there is little it can do to expand citizenship to the subject peoples of the wider South. EPRDF’s anti-democratic posture to disallow a political space where deeply political issues can be discussed (by reducing everything down to the technicalities of law and economic governance) is a proclamation of closure of politics by relegating the discussion to the realm of techniques. Election is thus reduced to a mode of enhancing what the French philosopher Michel Foucault calls ‘governmentality’, a technical-ideological apparatus of controlling and regulating the population by eliciting acquiescence in their own control and regulation. EPRDF’s adversaries, especially the north-central ethio-political class, also play their own role in this proclamation and enactment of closure of politics by aestheticizing a heavily contested political issue. As I shall argue in subsequent sections, they engage in exoticizing and aestheticizing an essentially political issue of the past and the future. They engage in a double movement that also politically demonizes – and excludes – the essentially political questions (such as the question of diversity [sameness and difference], historical political violence/injustice, misrecognition, inclusion-in-citizenship, and co-equal (re)founding of the polity. They thus aestheticize the inaugural violence by iconizing the leaders of the past through a raft of artistic products (images and lyrics, pictures and songs, etc) thereby rehabilitating them from the tyranny and oppression they represented, the tyranny and oppression they were once criticized for. At the same time, they demonize what could probably be the most important political question of modern Ethiopia–the question of diversity–by presenting it rather negatively as “politicized ethnicity.”

By so doing, i.e., by removing the important issues from the realm of the political to that of the aesthetic, they do their own bit of closing the political space for discussing the irreducibly political questions politically. The combined effect of these closures (by both groups)–born chiefly out of insecurity of EPRDF as a Government, only symptomatic of the greater insecurity of the ever more fragile Ethiopian State it runs, manages, and embodies–causes our judgement of the process and consequence of the election to be pessimistic. The insecurity of the ‘eternal kingdom’ assumed to have been established by Menelik, Haileselassie, and Mengistu; the insecurity born out of the incomplete nation-building project, prompts EPRDF’s opponents of the Amhara constituency to aspire for similar closure of the political space through aestheticization and exoticization of the infinitely political questions.

2. The Mood: Hope and Anticipation, or Angst and Despair?

Election is time-bound. Its temporality is its essence. The intensity or lack thereof is the function of its being limited in time. As a result, its process, outcome, and significance are dependent on the ‘political ecology’ of the time. It is dependent on what is ‘in the air’, what is troubling the polity, and what is exercising the large majority of the electorate. This is because election needs a particular kind of ‘democratic ambience’, as it were, a (more or less) festive atmosphere imbued with hope and anticipation (the subtext of which is fear and anxiety). Election has its own ‘mood’, sort of a national ‘political labor’. Understanding the mood – capturing the pulse of the polity in the electoral moment – helps us situate the election (the process, the result, and the context) in proper perspective. This underscores the supreme importance of a ‘right’ ‘political ecology’ that can engender hope (of winning) and of security (in the event of losing).

Hope and anxiety attend to all elections, the hope of winning and the angst of losing. However, in as much as possible, it is important that a proper balance is stricken between hope and fear, anticipation and despair. After all, the hope of renewal – the promise of exercising creative agency among the electorate – is an important ingredient of a healthy electoral democracy.

What attends Election 2015 in Ethiopia? Two areas of the public life of Ethiopia must be considered in order to map the electoral mood, namely the civic-political space for active citizens who can engage in politics on the one hand and the ‘nature’ of the state and its relation with the society on the other.

2.1 Civic-Political Space in Decline

The civic-political space has been a subject of controversy, especially since the 2005 election, the election that revealed not only the outer limits of the public sphere but also the foundational cracks in the State form in Ethiopia. In the wake of the 2005 election, the regime started to stiffen the rules of procedure in the parliament thereby limiting the discursive space even within the EPRDF-dominated parliament. That was followed by a raft of legislations on the civic/public space available for dissent, or its discursive and institutional articulation. These legislations constrained freedoms that are instrumental for, and constitutive of, democracy at a time. The Freedom of Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation (Proclamation N0. 590/2008), the Anti-terrorism Proclamation (Proclamation No. 652/2009), and the Charities and Societies Proclamation (Proclamation No. 621.2009) were the three major legislative acts deployed by the Ethiopian government to (re)occupy the already limited space for political dissent and consequent pluralism. These laws, for all their preambular commitment to expand and implement constitutional right to freedom of expression, press and association rationalized and perfected the pre-existing streak noticed in the regime’s intolerance of expressed dissent. Self-censorship has become a way of being, a way of life, among journalists and other writers as a result. The prohibitive punishment/fines in the media and press laws and the expansion of the anti-terrorism law to press products (art 6 of Proc. 652/2009) [vi] have effectively muted an overt criticism. The extensive use of surveillance [vii], the blocking of several websites (perceived to be in opposition to the regime in power), jamming of other press/media outlets has contributed to the increasing undermining of the expression of robust dissent.

The challenge of financial self-sustenance faced by civil society organizations working on causes related to human rights, democracy, and conflict, among otbers, owing to the prohibition of external funding above the 10 % maximum has not only forced such bodies to close or re-organize themselves as purely humanitarian organizations or relocate themselves as foreign or ‘resident’ NGOs, it also severely limited their voice as an alternative articulation of socio-economic challenges of the people from the perspective of daily lived experience [viii]. The government increasingly became the only source of information on vital socio-economic and political issues of various sectors of the society.

The invocation of the anti-terrorism law for trivial reasons such as having a contact with foreign journalists, international non-governmental human rights organizations (such as Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch), or foreign diplomats and embassies has effectively smothered people into watching their contacts and relationships. People feel that their relationships and exchanges (physical and electronic) are monitored. The invocation of the anti-terrorism law in relation to the Muslim activists protesting government intervention in religious affairs [ix]and the ‘Zone 9’ [x] bloggers and journalists jailed and currently standing trial has unveiled to us how the law can be strategically deployed against those the government perceives as opponents. This and other cases have shown the extent to which one can freely and peacefully express dissent without harassment, intimidation, and the terror of standing trial under the anti-terrorism law.

The pattern of government denial of the right of assembly and peaceful political demonstrations, especially when organized by political groupings perceived as fierce opponents of the regime (such as the Semayawi Party), selective permission of such meetings to factions of parties the government seeks to weaken (e.g. the faction within Unity for Democracy and Justice, UDJ), denial of meetings even within the premises of private organizations such as hotels to some groups (e.g. UDJ at the Imperial Hotel, 2009), the constant outlawing of meetings and demonstrations by unreasonably exploiting the “notification” duty under the Freedom of Assembly Proclamation (Proclamation No-3/1991) – where the duty to notify the municipality is interpreted as the duty to seek and secure prior permission – have all contributed to the practical stifling of freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration. Through this strategy – and the rhetoric of averting “street action” and “color revolutions” [xi] – the government has effectively silenced political protest to its decisions, policies, and laws. This in turn has weakened and subverted participatory democracy envisaged in the constitution (art 8(3)). In practice, such violation of the right to assembly and peaceful demonstration has been repeatedly witnessed in the Muslim protest to the government’s unconstitutional intervention in the choice of leadership of, and doctrines for, the Muslim population (since 2011).

Freedom of association of political parties has repeatedly been violated in the process of political party registration by the NEBE. The recent intervention by the NEBE to ‘recognize’ the leadership of factions within the UDJ and the All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP) is not only meddling with the internal issues of political parties, but also unconstitutionally limiting the freedom of association of members and their right to a choice of the leaders they deem fit to lead them.

Apart from this, one can say that there is a healthy ‘electoral climate’ only when – in addition to the right to vote and be elected – citizens have the right to administrative justice, i.e., the right of access to justice in a free, fair, and impartial court or tribunal, in the event that these rights are violated or threatened. The voter intimidation historically observed in the process of voter-registration by the kebeles (often suggesting possible deprivation of vital social and public services sought from local offices) are violative of the very basic political rights that are constitutive of the very essence of democratic practice. At times such intimidations tend to forget that their right to elect includes the freedom not to vote. They forget that in Ethiopia, voting is a right, not a duty.

The enhanced developmentalist gestures of the incumbent which views individual civil and political rights as less important in the face of the colossal “war on poverty”; the unabashed emphasis on growth (even in the Growth and Transformation Plan, GTP); its increasing turning away from its ‘original’ (1991) commitment to liberal policies (also charted out in the constitution); its continued neglect, or deliberate weakening, and strategic and manipulative use of democratic institutions (i.e., institutions of representation [House of Peoples’ Representatives, HPR, and House of Federation, HOF], empowerment [NEBE, Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Ombudsman], and of accountability and monitoring [e.g. the judiciary, Anti-corruption Commission, Auditor General] are not helping to create an environment conducive for a free and fair election. To that extent, there are complaints, grumblings, and disaffection among most of the opposition political actors who have a stake in the election. So, the rules and rulings around the process suggest that the mood is less than ideal. But a more complete account of the mood is revealed only when we examine the contradictions that come from the state form in Ethiopia. In the next sub-section [which will come in the form of a second instalment in this series of reflection around Elections 2015], I will turn to considering these contradictions that emanate from the state form and the constraints they impose on electoral democracy.

Tsegaye R Ararssa is a Constitutional lawyer currently in the process of completing his PhD studies at the University of Melbourne Law School. He can be contacted at tsegayer@gmail.com.

[1] The Transitional Charter of July 1991 starts with recognition of the supreme importance of the UDHR, especially civil and political rights such as freedom of expression, assembly, association. It explicitly made assertions about the need for comprehensive restructuring of the state by ensuring equality and sovereignty of the ‘nations, nationalities, and peoples” of Ethiopia and by foregrounding the right to self-determination as an organizing principle. It was negotiated principally among ethno-national liberation fronts (most centrally TPLF, OLF, EPLF but also others) who referred to themselves as “the peace-loving forces of Ethiopia”. See, Provisional Government of Ethiopia, ‘Transitional Period Charter,’ Negarit Gazetta, Proclamation No. 1/1991.

[2] Art 39 (1-3) entitles every “nation, nationality, and people” to the right to political, cultural, and economic self-determination.

[3] EPRDF was quick to work on disarming the army of the Derg and the fighters of the other liberation fronts that negotiated the Transition with it. It also proclaimed its TPLF fighters to serve as the Ethiopian Defence Force of the transitional period. The demobilization of some of the soldiers came later after the formal inauguration of the FDRE as per the Constitution. It is interesting that the first government-like institution set up everywhere immediately after the arrival of EPRDF on the scene was the “Peace and Stability Committees”. Most meetings it held in its attempt to build rapport with the people was invariably called “Peace and Democracy Conference”. The people who negotiated the Transitional Charter referred to themselves as “the peace Loving Forces of Ethiopia.” There was a rhetoric that privileged peace even in the leaders’ speeches/interviews on why relinquish Ethiopia’s right/interest over Eritrea without a fight. The climactic moment in this series of peace-venerating rhetoric came when a line is inserted even in the preamble of the FDRE Constitution to the effect that the constitution-makers are “determined to consolidate, as a lasting legacy, the peace and the prospect of a democratic order… ” This flourish in rhetoric never matched with reality. The fact that TPLF’s army became the State’s national army and substantially remained to be so to date indicates not only the partisan nature of the army but also the fundamentally militarized nature of EPRDF’s politics that keeps a politicized guerilla fighters for a national army. Obviously, the needed separation of politics from (military) force in a democracy is absent in Ethiopia.

[4] The NEBE made a blunder around the election of the leadership of the All Ethiopian Unity p party (AEUP), the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ).

[5] Some candidates of parties such as the UDJ and Semayawi (notably its leader Engineer Getinet Yilikal) were excluded allegedly because of the overcrowding of candidates that are running for elections in one electoral district.

[vi] Art 6 entitled “Encouragement of terrorism” reads as follows: “Whoever publishes or causes the publication of a statement that is likely to be understood by some or all of the members of the public to whom it is published as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to them to the commission or preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism stipulated under article 3 of this proclamation is punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 10 to 20 years.” This article has been almost routinely (ab) used to arrest persons who run photocopy shops both in Addis Ababa and other towns.

[vii] Claire Lauterbach, “Ethiopia expands surveillance capacity with German tech via Lebanon” (23 March 2015). https://www.privacyinternational.org/?q=node%2F546

[viii] The law on Charities and Societies limits the amount of foreign money that goes into the budget of an Ethiopian (activist) NGO to a maximum of 10 % of the total. The reason given is to limit an external influence on the local organization’s agenda of promoting human rights, democracy, peace and security, etc. In principle, the argument goes, these issues of governance are a matter under the sovereign jurisdiction of the government of Ethiopia and are not items to be shaped by financing external forces. In order to get more funding, one should be registered as a ‘resident’ or a foreign/international NGO who, if it seeks to work on issues of political governance (e.g. elections, democracy, human rights, conflict resolution, constitutionalism and rule of law, prisons, access to justice, minorities etc), should get a specific permission from the government. This has made it necessary for many of the NGOs to recast the focus of their work shifting mostly from human rights to humanitarian causes and their approach from human rights based approach (HRBA) to needs-based approach (NBA).

[ix] The Muslim activists have been protesting peacefully against the government’s interference in their religious affairs. They particularly called on the government to desist from assigning teachers and determining the content of the teachings to be delivered in Mosques. They also sought to exercise their right to select their own religious leaders without any influence by the government. After the arrest and indictment of the leaders of these protests (and those government claims are associated with them), the protestors continued to demonstrate demanding the release of their leaders. Their peaceful protest has been met by a series of violence, arrests, and various forms of intimidation by the government’s police and security forces. The arrested leaders have been tried for terrorism since. Their case has gone has been debated before regular and constitutional tribunals (CCI/HOF) and is even presented to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The Muslim protestors relentlessly insisted on a peaceful resistance throughout; when they are unlawfully forced to face trial, they tried to exhaust all the possible legal remedies both national and international with a hope that the government will have no excuse in accusing them of any form of violence let alone terrorism. By so doing, they are in effect putting the entire system on trial.

[x] In March 2014, six bloggers (whose blog is known as Zone 9) and three journalists were suddenly arrested and are now being tried for terrorism.

[xi] The term “Color Revolution” is often mockingly used in Ethiopia to invoke the memory of the Rose Revolution (of Georgia) and Orange Revolution (of Ukraine) and deny their possibility in Ethiopia. It is also used by EPRDF to suggest that, unlike the regimes in Georgia and Ukraine, they are too strong to be unseated by such street actions and unarmed/civilian struggles

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