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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

By Asrat Seyoum and Solomon Goshu

Courtesy of the much discussed 2005 election, the Ethiopian political landscape, especially around a major election, has changed for good. So much so that election season in the country is now associated with anxiety of instability on one hand, and revival of political discourse on the other.
Most political parties start to come out of their shell during this time, becoming more vocal on issues of political significance. The next election is scheduled to take place in May 2015, and the usual heightened mood seems to be picking up pace slowly, with efforts to awaken voters already beginning. One example to this effect is a call last week by Merera Gudina (Ph.D.), current chairman of Medrek, the Ethiopian Democratic Unity Forum, for the ruling party to sit down and negotiate on how to go about the upcoming national election. In a press briefing, Merera expressed his party's desire to discuss the possibilities of opening up the political space in the face of the upcoming election.  

Oddly, such calls and occasional negotiation between the incumbent Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and its handful of counterparts in the opposition camp is also becoming part of election time tradition. But, this is not restricted to national elections; dialogue about the conduct of elections, although it often ends in disagreement, is also becoming customary in recent times even for municipal elections. Last year's municipal elections, for instance, witnessed a back-and-forth between the two political camps, which was concluded by a group of 33 opposition parties boycotting the election. 

Although such is the characteristics of the multi-party system and periodic elections in Ethiopia, the whole notion of democracy is also said to be at its nascent stage. From a 'glass half full' perspective, there are a number of legally registered and operational political parties in Ethiopia offering alternative ideas to voters. The incumbent espousing a revolutionary democracy ideology is itself an amalgamation of four independent parties under the umbrella of the EPRDF, not to mention an additional four with a status of affiliate. The story is the same on the other side of the field; opposition politicians also find themselves under various political organizations, fronts and coalitions. 
Black or white

Bearing in mind the diversity of political units within both the incumbent and opposition camps, evaluating how the public view these different units, in terms of the vision they have for Ethiopia, is of great importance. But why is it important? Because it is the only way one can reasonably measure the extent of political alternatives that the idea market offers to the public, according to pundits. In an Ethiopian context, it appears that random surveys of voters could be revealing as to what their perception is regarding the political alternatives presented by the multi-party system. The response to questions that The Reporter posed to random citizens in Addis Ababa established, quite firmly, the existence of an adequate awareness to the notion of an incumbent party, and to one that opposes it. Furthermore, most commentators also identify an ideological divide between the two groups, though not in detail or as precise as a political scientist would have liked.

There appears to be a striking common theme among voters in both the ordinary public and elite class. The perception that the idea market presents the voters with generally two political alternatives; one being the longstanding political ideology of the EPRDF and its affiliates, while the other is that of opposition parties' grouped into one. It was easy for most commentators to put the political alternatives presented by the opposition parties into one basket, mainly under the pro-liberal stamp, and the ruling party into another. In a matter of saying, most voters appear to perceive political ideologies in Ethiopia only as black or white; either EPRDF or opposition parties, and whatever ideas they stand for. 

The Reporter talked to three professionals with a legal, business and academic background at a book launch for a law and development conference on Thursday, and they all seemed to suffer from the same syndrome. All three said that surely the opposition politicians in Ethiopia espouse a political ideology that is in direct contradiction with the ruling party's. And they were also quick to identify all parties in the opposition camp with liberal democracy thinking, as opposed to the EPRDF's revolutionary democracy. However, that is as deep as they can go. They queried whether there is a fundamental ideological difference between the parties.    
In retrospect, one can reasonably deduce that such kind of voter perception might have started to take shape since the aforementioned 2005 election and the instability that followed.  The eye-opening political debate aired at the that time brought to the fore the subtle ideological difference that existed between EPRDF and the then major opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and Ethiopian Democratic Forces Union (EDFU) parties. Popular opinion at the time indicated that the difference between the two opposition forces never occupied the same place as their difference with the ruling party. 

Loose identity

There are various reasons for the unclear differences among the political ideologies and party programs of the opposition camp. Endalkachew Geremew, constitutional expert at Gonder University, says the public is not to blame for not clearly differentiating opposition party ideologies. “Apparently, the parties themselves are reluctant to state their clear ideological identity,” he argues. That is largely because of internal dilemmas, since most of them trace their origin from the socialist era of 1960s and 70s, Endalkachew contends. “And now, most of the opposition parties in Ethiopia have reinvented themselves as liberal democrats. So, their socialist origin is not always easy to push liberal values.” 

There are pundits that say the debate between the incumbent and opposition camp is another factor that makes it difficult to identify individual parties' frame of mind and
their political programs. Primarily they argue that EPRDF's access to the public media has given the party the opportunity to shape the perception of many people, not only about its own ideology, but also about the ideology of the opposition parties. Meresa Kidane, on his piece in defense of liberal democracy against revolutionary democracy back in 2010, argued that EPRDF tactically steered the political debate between itself, the revolutionary democrat, and the opposition group, to look like it was a debate with a market fundamentalist Neo-liberal group. This enabled the party to demonize the opposition as being subservient to western interests, Meresa writes. In the process, he believed that the ruling party has succeeded in making the debate appear to be between extreme liberal values and revolutionary democracy, entrenching in voters’ minds its own portrayal of the opposition parties. The opposition parties also take a fair share of the blame, according to the same pundits. They argue that the time these parties spend pointing out what their opponents are doing wrong could be spent helping to inform the voter about their detailed ideological stance. 

Even for the better informed, the ideological credos of the individual parties in the opposition camp is not an easy fact to decipher. A simple review of the individual party manifestos of a few parties in this group is clear testimony to that. With the exception of the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), the official party manifestos of Unity for Democratic and Justice (UDJ) for instance is one to mention. Before going on to its party program, EDP's manifesto clearly states the basis of the parties political ideology, respect for individual right, which leads one to believe EDP's liberal roots. However, EDP did not want to leave matters there, and perhaps deserves praise for that. It explains that the party, strictly speaking, is a liberal democratic party. But, in due consideration to the yet-to-mature political environment for strict liberal democratic system, EDP manifesto states that it is currently ready to let go some of its liberal values, thus becoming a party with a center right orientation. The fact of the matter is different for UDJ. For example, its political program clearly states that “UDJ is guided by the democratic principles and philosophy based on the freedom of the individual”. According to political professionals this cannot be mistaken for anything else but straightforward liberal democratic values. However, go down a bit further and the manifesto takes it upon itself to inform voters that it also takes group rights as part of an individual, and that it draws from the values of social democracy and consensus democracy. This was what Endalkachew referred to as the difficulty of the parties to clarify their ideological basis. 

“For example, if we take UDJ, it believes that the federal system cannot continue to a ethnic-based system, rather it should consider geographic layout, population distribution and convenience for development,” he explains. However, its umbrella organization Medrek, which became a front a while back, did not have any problem with the federalist system, argues Endalkachew, rather it seeks to make few changes to improve it. If this does not bother the parties themselves, and if they were able to work together in the face of such sharp differences, then one will gather that ideology is not as central as it is expected to be among the Ethiopian opposition parties. However, it would also be naive to assume that Medrek is the only coalition where parties with ideological origins worlds apart work to take over the political power, he explains. Parties like CUD, EDFU are also known for encompassing parties with different and at times irreconcilable ideological differences. 

Luckily, voters in Ethiopia are not known to punish or reject parties with loose ideological foundations. “Nor did we reward the ones with strong foundation,” he contends. The case in point is the CUD's landslide victory in the capital during the 2005 election. He argues further that we cannot say that the CUD at the time had an internal ideological harmony. Rather, parties from different origins came together to win an overwhelming vote. Endalkachew's argument is further strengthened by Assefa Fisseha (Ph.D,), a researcher at the Institute of Federal Studies (IFS). He says the fact that we have numerous parties in Ethiopia shows that ideological identity receives less attention  in political party formation. Had ideology any place, we would have seen a small number of parties; perhaps not more than three or four. His point carries some weight when the ideological basis of parties in Ethiopia is evaluated. For instance, with exception of Medrek, which did not indicate clearly what the guiding principle and ideology of the front would be, most of the major parties – EDP, UDJ, All Ethiopia Unity Party (AEUP) and Blue Party – in one way or another fall under the liberal umbrella. But, they fail to forge alliances into one or two parties, except near election periods, Assefa points out. “This, in fact, is a great disadvantage to the opposition parties. The vote that goes to the opposition parties would be subjected to divide among many parties with the same ideologies and similar political programs,” he concludes.

From a different angle, Gebru Tareke (Prof.) opines that political party formation in Ethiopia has no consideration for ideological foundation. He says that most of opposition parties did not come together on the basis of ideas; parties were not formed by the collection of like-minded politicians who decided to struggle, taking the ideology as their tool. Prof. Gebru rather says that Ethiopian parties are formed on the basis of personalities, not on ideologies and beliefs. Hence, he argues that it would be difficult to expect ideological clarity. Partly, Lidetu Ayalew, former President EDP, in his write up back in 2011 indicated that he and others in the opposition camps were driven to form parties due to personalities, and there were slim possibilities of working with them under the same political umbrella. Lidetu clearly articulated how he had decided to depart from some political figures he was working with back then, not due to fundamental difference in ideology, but personality. In the mean time, others say that ideological contradictions are also apparent in the incumbent camp. They say that among the affiliate parties there are some whose stance on issues runs in contrary to the ruling parties'.  Yet the murkier the party ideals remain, the less political alternatives there would be in country.