23 December 2012

Ethiopia: Failure to Properly Value Election Process Drains Competition


There is an almost universal consensus that elections are one of the pillars of a democratic system. They remain so since they can legitimise a change in the power, which dictates the machineries and resources of a state.

Indeed, democracy capitalises on elections through the creation of a system of political competition, which can bring a change in the institutions, along with a change in the government.

It cannot, however, all happen in one night. It is rather a process that involves a linear evolution of political spaces and their underpinning institutions. An ultimate extension of such an evolution would be the concurrent development of political parties towards increased representativeness, with better consolidated and filtered political interests.

If there is one thing missing in the Ethiopian political sphere, with the elections for the city councils of Addis Abeba and Dire Dawa fast approaching, it is the clarity of objectives, in terms of political ideologies and the means through which to achieve them. This is a common shortfall, within both the ruling-EPRDF and their numerous political oppositions.

What seems to have resulted from a political space, saturated with ideological ambiguity and methodological confusion, is an election regime that focuses on patronage and patrimony. Excessive focus on the results dwarfs the necessary appreciation towards both the evolution of the systems and the processes of election.

On the one hand resides a ruling party that has very confusing ideologies. Its governing concept, dubbed theDevelopmentStatetheory, provides the state with overwhelming power over the economy. It preaches for policy continuity. It is only through policy continuity that the envisioned transition from a low to middle income country can be realised; or so the theory goes.

Where it all becomes confusing is at the point where the theory adds democracy into the equation. It falls short of explaining how policy continuity can be guaranteed for a substantial period of time, enough to take the nation to middle-income level, if the rule of the game is democracy. After all, the very essence of democracy lays in the unpredictability of the results of an election, and thus the leadership of the country.

By blending the two contradictory themes together, the EPRDF sends a rather confusing message to the public. It brings little to the ideological clarity that is essential for a competitive electoral regime.

No one would be able to answer whether the EPRDF would be ready to concede power, if it is defeated by a landslide. If at all the books of the Democratic Developmental State are anything to go by, the case is unjustifiable.

In contrast, the political opposition looks at democracy as a temporally defined phenomenon. Their very focus is to assume power now. They seem to give less focus to the natural traits of democracy.

Global experiences, however, show that democracy is a process where political parties progressively consolidate interests to eventually build solid political bases. It is through deploying these political bases, effectively, that they would be able to defeat incumbents and obtain the power to dictate the use of state resources.

There is no democratic nation, at least by the universal standards, wherein democracy has developed overnight. It takes decades everywhere to consolidate, grow and mature. That is simply how it is.

It could not grow flawlessly within a short period of time. No process could ever do so, let alone democracy - a system that involves multitudes of stakeholders.

Ethiopian political opposition seems to ignore the very nature of this process. Their focus on immediate results removes them from the essential appreciation of the election process. Largely, their dealing goes something like, "whatever is out of my reach is unacceptable."

Elections inEthiopiaare thus platforms where a ruling party, with no intention of conceding power, sooner than the 'desirable' time, faces a political opposition that does not appreciate the nature of the very process that could bring it to power. Hence, they are often marred with controversies over simple trivialities.

This matrix eventually sidelines an important element of the election process; the electorate.

With the power to define the outcomes of elections, the electorate is expected to be informed about the policy alternatives of contending parties. An uninformed electorate could settle for a policy choice that it does not deserve.

That is exactly what seems to be happening lately. Political parties spend little time in explaining the rationales of their policy alternatives to the public. Even when they do, they do it self-defeatingly. It is common to see political parties spending the little visibility they have, accusing the ruling-EPRDF, rather than promoting their own policy alternatives.

As a result, the electorate often has little information about the pros and cons of the menu list of policies presented to it. Thus, it goes to the ballot box without an adequate understanding of its choices.

No doubt that the responsibility of changing this whole matrix lies on the shoulders of the political parties, both the incumbent and the numerous oppositions. This change calls for a shift in both their perspective, and way of doing business.

As an important player in the game, the ruling party has to present its argument over the incongruence, between democracy and policy continuity. Without it, the journey towards democracy will be seriously hampered. It should have the guts to push its argument; no matter how incomplete it is, forward to the market of ideas, so that it can receive public scrutiny.

Opposition parties, on the other hand, have to start to appreciate the evolving nature of democracy. They ought to refocus away from short-termism. By detaching themselves from the traditional perspective of looking at elections as events for defeating the ruling party, they could, rather, build the political base that would eventually take them to their desired destination.

At the end of the day, it is the nation and its people that would benefit from these adjustments. Competitive politics would ensure reasonable institutional stability that could help streamline a stable macro economy. A stable macro economy would, in turn, repay that political space, by initiating a critical mass of political interest; a building block for political parties.

Apparently, the time is opportune for such an adjustment to happen. Addis Abeba and Dire Dawa are the two utmost urbanised areas of the nation. They command better access to basic infrastructures, including communications facilities.

The upcoming elections in the two cities could, as such, serve as an important opportunity to turn the page and move forwards. A lot is expected from the two sides of the aisle, in order to change the electoral experience of the nation, for the good. Failing to do so would risk the democratic evolution, which, ultimately, would too hold back economic development.

It certainly is high time for political parties to understand the stakes at hand, and begin to live up to them.

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