Preparations are being made for the 2013 nationwide local elections and the Addis Abeba City Council elections. The elections are expected to be held on April 7, 2013; the fifth local elections in the country since the EPRDF assumed power.
The first local elections, also known as snap elections, were held in April 1992 on non-partisan basis, through public meetings. The rest of the local elections were held on partisan basis.
Since the 1992 local elections, the EPRDF has been careful not to loosen its grip on the local political structure of the country. It is alleged that, even though the first elections were supposed to be held on non-partisan basis, the EPRDF ensured that individuals who were loyal to the party were installed in each wereda and kebele.
The ruling party and its allies have also claimed almost 100pc control over all local councils in the successive three local elections that were held in the country. Not even a single local council seat in the country is held by a member of an opposition party, according to a report by the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE).
Only a few seats are held by individuals who run for elections as independent candidates.
On the other hand, since the transitional period, none of the major opposition parties have fully participated in local elections. Political parties including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the All Amhara People Organisation (AAPO), and the Ethiopian Democratic Action Group (EDAG) and other small parties withdrew from the 1992 local elections.
All opposition parties boycotted the 2001 local elections after initial signs of showing interest in participating. They also boycotted the 2008 local elections.
Even now, some of the opposition parties are signalling that they are planning to boycott the upcoming local elections. Their reasons for withdrawal from the local elections have been, and still are, alleged intimidation and repression by the ruling party's local officials, lack of impartiality on the part of the NEBE, electoral irregularities, and an unfavourable electoral system, among other reasons.
The opposition parties seem, however, to be willing to endure repression and electoral irregularities in national elections than in local elections. This can be inferred from the fact that they participated almost in all national elections hitherto held, except the 1995 national elections, despite having made similar allegations.
Moreover, they often exhausted available administrative and legal remedies to challenge alleged electoral irregularities in national elections; this is not, however, the case with local elections. They consistently and readily resort to withdrawal from local elections.
Why the different approaches, which almost amount to double standards, to national and local elections?
As some writers argue, given the organisational and financial constraints under which opposition parties operate, it seems that they find participating in national elections much easier than participating in local elections. There are only 550 seats to compete for in the parliament. On the other hand, there are more than 3.5 million zonal, wereda, city, and kebele councils' seats at the local level.
The situation became worse for the opposition parties when the EPRDF decided to expand the size of each of the local councils for the purpose of 'creating an expanded forum for public participations'.
The opposition parties simply do not have the financial, logistic, and organisational capability to compete for all these local council seats.
Moreover, a proclamation enacted in 2008 entitles political parties to receive financial assistance from the government for national and regional elections. It is, however, silent on whether the parties are entitled for the same kind of financial assistance for local elections.
Opposition parties also receive financial and logistical assistances from international donors for their participation in national elections, while that is not always the case for local elections. Indeed, national elections receive great attention both at the national and international level.
They are reported in national and international media. International observers either offer to come and observe national elections or are invited to do so. Local elections, on the other hand, are held without much funfair.
Over and above their limited capacity, opposition parties seem less enthused over local elections. This lack of interest in local elections might have stemmed from the assumption that critical decisions are made by the federal government; not by local government units.
It, therefore, seems that the leaders of the opposition parties believe that controlling the centre will eventually lead to controlling the 'peripheries'. In addition, many members of the opposition parties view candidacy for a local council seat with detest.
They rather seem to look for the more 'glamorous' candidacy to Parliament and regional councils only.
Lidetu Ayalew, an opposition party leader, once wrote that, he had to present himself as a candidate for a wereda council in the 2001 local elections, in order to encourage members of his own party to stand for local elections, since most of them were not too keen to be candidates in wereda and kebele elections. This shows the low significance that the opposition political parties and their members attach to local government and local elections.
It is apparent that opposition parties have a much greater incentive to participate in national elections than in local elections. It is also easier for them to take part in national elections. It should, however, be stressed that it is imperative that opposition parties provide much more attention to local elections than they have done so far.
The obvious and the most important benefit of their participation in local elections is the positive impact it has in enhancing the democratic culture of the country. More than that, it is in the long term interest of the opposition parties to participate in local elections.
If the opposition parties exert more effort to gain better representation in local government, it will enhance their chances of gaining better representation in regional and central governments. As the leaders of opposition parties often allege, local authorities who are loyal to the ruling party are among the major stumbling blocks against their electoral success.
Local authorities, purportedly, serve as a buffer zone between local communities and opposition parties. Simultaneously, they provide the ruling party the invaluable service of disseminating its policies and programmes and mobilising local communities along its programme. The opposition parties can put a limit on the alleged oppressive reach of the ruling party by gaining control of some of the local councils.
In addition, it is self-evident that the presence of multiple councils at multiple levels of government offers multiple opportunities for testing the viability of various policies simultaneously and with little risk. Controlling certain local political units will afford opposition parties the political space to test the workability of their policies and programmes.
If they succeed in alleviating communal problems at the community level, they will be able to poise themselves to claim greater mandates at regional and national levels. Moreover, participation in local government will provide opposition parties a tangible experience in politics and public administration, making them eligible to assume greater responsibilities at the national level.
As the experiences of other jurisdictions illustrate, many great leaders began their political career at the communal level. Their experience in local politics has been a great asset for their success in national politics. It is, thus, high time that all political parties provide to local government and local elections the attention that they deserve.
Zemelak Ayele (phd) - Zayele@uwc.ac.za - a Post Doctoral Fellow in a Multi-Level Government Initiative, Community Law Centre, University of the Western Cape (uwc), South Africa.