By Abel Merawi
There is something ironic and sad when one follows election news in developing countries, especially African countries. Just days before election day, it is common to see riots breaking out with protestors claiming that the leaders will rig the election. These demonstrations, mostly called by rival parties, do not demand a fair election, but they claim that the election is rigged unless they win. I fear that a similar pattern is bound to happen in Ethiopia unless some major flaws in the political system are someday rectified. Although I am not a political expert, I will attempt to provide a general analysis of the overall political atmosphere currently developing in the country. I will examine the looming threat by considering the political parties, the electorate, and external factors such as the media.
When we examine the nature of the existing political parties in Ethiopia, a similar pattern begins to emerge. One obvious and common feature in most parties is the fact that they are ethnic-based parties. To run a nation, it is essential to have national parties that represent every citizen of the country. Because those who have tried the ethnic-based-party model before us did not do so well. Simple logic will show us the flaws in our ethnic-based political system. If a party cares only about one ethnic group and holds others as competitors or, even worse, as oppressors, the victory of that party will translate into gains for that ethnic group only and a loss for the rest. Thus, why would other ethnic groups elect such a party?
When we look at the typical propaganda of any ethnic-based party, it is based on grievance rather than on national agenda or even an ethnic agenda. Such parties speak of the ill-treatments their group faced in the past and how it is now their time to lead (read: ill-treat others). I find it offensively amusing how such parties routinely fail to present a plan to improve the lives of the ethnic group they claim to represent. Furthermore, such parties are opposition parties that engage in the literal meaning of the word ‘opposition’. They always oppose the plans of the leading party, but they never present alternatives to solve the things they oppose. Opposing something can make one an activist or a rebel, but never a political party. A political party needs to have its own agenda. It needs economic, political, social plans (and so much more) in order to govern a country or a region effectively.
The above flaws are not limited to opposition parties. In our country, they are also manifested in the government itself. Since the ruling party had in the past appeared to encourage everyone to focus more on ethnic identity, rather than on national identity, we are currently living in the aftermath of its actions. When we give more economic incentives to one ethnic group while depriving others, the clear message transmitted to everyone is that economic well-being depends on ethnic identity. That drives the electorate to drift to ethnic-based parties and perpetuate the problem.
Another problem with the ruling party has to do with its own unity and the rule of law. When there are factions within the government, it functions in a paradox with one body going to the left and the other to the right. The fate of the country is ultimately decided by the one who has more power. Decisions mostly emanate from the personal will of the leaders, including those related to the rule of law. This is a mockery of the concept of rule of law, because it means anyone who leads the country is above the law.
Let us now turn our focus to the people and examine the kind of electorate they constitute. The philosopher and diplomat Joseph de Maistre said, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” If the best our country produces is an ethnic-based government, it also suggests the people have ethnic inclinations or at least tolerance for it. Neither Hitler nor Mussolini acted autonomously without the consent of their people. In fact, millions of Germans and Italians have supported them. In the same manner, Ethiopians have tolerated or encouraged the government to be the way it is when they didn’t protest and act against it. The people can encourage such a system also by making important issues part of their daily jokes or silly talks. By engaging in unproductive conversations, the people lose sight of reality and normalize injustice. Sometimes it is important to hold our anger and opinions until we can engage in productive discourses that translate into action.
Coming back to the topic of election, a voter who supports any political party for its ethnicity rather than its national principles is not ready for elections. When voters are swayed by personality-cult to the point of sacrificing their interests and those of others, they are not ready for elections. An opinionated electorate has no room for evidence but only for sentiments. Dambisa Moyo in ‘The Edge of Chaos’ suggests that voters should take a sort of test before elections to check if they know what the parties before them represent, and he suggests the vote of each individual should be weighed accordingly. In previous Ethiopian elections, we have seen how people were easily swayed by party emblems and looks of individuals. The awareness of voters could be raised using the media as a medium for truth.
The role of media in building democracy is indispensable. This is because informed voters exist only when the media acts as a ‘watch-dog’ and sees and exposes the actions of the government and opposition parties. But the reverse happens when the media is driven by other interests or is under the influence of third parties. In our country, both the state and most private media seem to have pledged their allegiance to a certain party or ideology. As evidence, it is common to hear contrary narratives about the same event from different media. Fundamental principles of journalism require that the media to be impartial and independent, with their responsibilities being solely to the people. Unless the media is free to side with truth, the impact on elections could be dire.
The other form of media that is running wild throughout the world is social media. We have seen the consequences in the developed world, such as America, that has far more resources to mitigate the effect than us. One can imagine how it will impact a developing country like ours by the way it has functioned up to now. Some suggest some legal control is necessary, but this has proved impractical to implement so far. Having a rational electorate that checks facts first and acts afterward, and an official media to show the truth, appear to be more reliable solutions.
At the end of the day, the flaws in the Ethiopian election could only be solved if the political parties, the people, and the media take their responsibilities seriously. Having a national electoral board with full autonomy to set up the necessary procedures and controls is a first step to solving these problems. However, no single entity or agency can solve such massive problems by itself. Ultimately, the power rests on the people who should foresee danger and base their judgment on concrete facts and act accordingly. Because, the only agenda of these people is life, freedom, and prosperity.