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CAN ETHIOPIAN DEMOCRACY THRIVE WITHOUT STRONG OPPOSITION?

Ezana Sehay 6/23/2015

During a recent forum to discuss the scandal that has engulfed the Canadian upper chamber [the senate] an audience member asked “is Canadian democracy in crisis?’ Andrew Coyne, the prolific journalist and columnist who was one of the panelists at forum responded “what does a democracy without crisis look like?”

The moral of the story is: even in countries like Canada with deep-rooted democratic culture there still prevails a democratic deficit. That goes to show you there is no democratic end-product rather it is always a work in progress.

In the case of Ethiopia, the budding democracy has achieved more than its peers at the same chronological stage. Yet there is a persistent setback that is blemishing those successes and undermines its credibility - that is to say the lackluster plurality as a consequence of dispirited opposition camp.


Obiter dictum: Before I get to the main subject matter, allow me to digress momentarily to dispel some naive misconceptions or deliberate distortions about the outcome of the election.

The claim or accusations that the EPRDF rigged the vote doesn’t hold water. If the government had the intention or capacity to manipulate the end-result of the ballot it would’ve been expedient (externally) to let the opposition parties win few seats. That way the US will be pleased, the EU would be ecstatic, the windbags [civil societies] would be deprived of one reason to bark about, and the western media consortium’s coverage of the country’s democratic process would’ve been favorable. The victim of such unscrupulous action would be truth. Evidently, EPRDF chose to stay on the side of truth and let the people render their verdict without interference – no matter the consequence.

Now that I have debunked the conspiracy theory, let me get back to the point.

According to the late political theorist Robert A. Dahl, “democracy is not any political ideology: rather it is a political system. It can embrace any ideology as far as the ideology does not pose any threat to the democratic political system of a country.”

Therefore democracy is a system whose constitution allows peaceful contention for the right to exercise power. Such accommodating nature of democracy is what makes it the last best hope of mankind and - the day’s killer up – to wit.  

Adam Przeworski, professor of political science at New York University; accentuate  what constitutes democratic system as follows:  minimally, a system can only be democratic so long all governing apparatuses [the executive and the legislative] are assumed as a result or consequence of elections. Such contest can only occur in an atmosphere where and when opposition parties can exist and run in an election with the intention of winning. “Therefore democracy is a system in which parties lose elections.”

It is worth noting both Dahl and Przeworski’s emphasis on the concept of “contest” in a democratic system. Contest implies rivals who challenge each other -   winners and losers, so to speak. In this framework winners and losers refers to governing party and opposition party (ies), the main players that shape the democratic system.

Based on the above succinct analysis one can presume the prevalence of strong democracy in Ethiopia, after all there are over 70 political parties 59 of which took part in the last election. But the mere incubation of political parties doesn’t make a system viable democracy; it depends on how effective these parties are in effecting policies or policy changes.

It wouldn’t be overstating, saying opposition parties are part of the pillars and a monument of the concept of choice in democracy; they are essential component of the system. But of course for them to be effective they have to be strong and well endowed.

A well-functioning [strong] opposition is a tangible and natural sign of a healthy democracy. It promotes democratic stability, maturity, and tolerance in to the political cultural perspective.  It encourages political engagement of citizens at every social level and helps to create a well-informed society.

By mobilizing citizens behind their policies or visions, opposition parties often open the venue for citizen involvement in issues of national importance. As such they help to increase voter turnout and so elections become highly competitive and highly contested.

Such civil discourse in politics has immense benefit to the system and country. It avoids public disillusionment on the progress of democracy, especially in the event of consecutive uni-lateral victory like the one that transpires in Ethiopia.    

It is not difficult to ascertain that the Ethiopian opposition eco-system has a long way to go to become the alternative force Ethiopians are longing for. Recently a friend of mine jokingly said “you know, for years, Ethiopia suffered because it didn’t have a democratic government - now the fear is it might suffer because it doesn’t have strong opposition.”

To begin with, it is better to have a strong government with weak opposition rather than an insipid one. But the point is, robust political parties on both side of the isle are vital for a democracy to thrive.

The last time Ethiopians sow a strong showing by the opposition groups was in the 2005 election in which they managed to win almost a third of the parliamentary seats. Unfortunately they squandered that public offering when they failed to take up their seats. Eventually internal contradictions lead to their disintegration and they never regain their disposition ever since.  

Events of the 2005 election can be considered as a period of missed opportunities and catastrophic mistakes for the opposition. Their failure to take up their seats, the administration of Addis Ababa and their tendency to capitulate to the whims of the extremists had a terrifying consequence.

As one can imagine, in the intervening period, the oppositions’ standing in the eyes of the Ethiopian people have changed dramatically. They have failed to galvanize even their own constituency.  Their apparent ineptness has prevented them from playing their share in nurturing the democratic system.

In the long run, the waning influence of the opposition will lead not only to apathy but their frustrated supporters may resort to other [illegal] means of struggle.

Equally important but less recognized is the benefit of a strong opposition to the ruling party. A strong opposition not only complements the democratic system but also the government. In the absence of a competent rival, the reigning party may become complacent and insensitive.

The main reason EPRDF lost many seats in the 2005 election was because its brute parliamentary majority made it arrogant and almost impervious to public opinion. This was confirmed by the late Prime Minister, Meles, when he said “… we got the message loud and clear and we will rectify it.”

Well, Rectify they did winning the next consecutive elections overwhelmingly leading the country toward becoming a “dominant party” state. Critics point out the dangers of “dominant party” saying it breeds smugness and arrogance which hold political contest hostage.

Case in point, as we speak, the symptoms of public discontent that prevailed during the 2005 election - corruption, poor service provision, and mal administration at local and regional level - are making a comeback. This wouldn’t happen if you have of strong opposition which would constantly expose the government’s inefficiencies or bring to focus issues it [the government] is not addressing.

Being in power without any checks and balance in place fosters hubris and exaggerated sense of security. Just glance at what happened to the epitome of “dominant party” rule: The Congress Party of India.

Of course there are other crucial players to the survival of democracy. The strength of national institutions to guard the political culture from derailment, the prevalence of strong and adept indigenous civil societies to defend democracy, the proliferation of credible and reliable media which assumes the Responsibility informing the public about the undemocratic whims of the party in power.

Nevertheless none are as successful as organized political groups [parties] in spreading the zeal of democracy and safeguarding it in perpetuity.

In closing; in a fledgling democracy like that of Ethiopia where the culture of plural politics is in its infancy, the absence of robust opposition not only leads to suspicion of the ruling party’s commitment to democracy but also puts democracy itself on a shaky ground.

As a matter of fact, a democracy that is devoid of viable opposition party or parties has the propensity to becoming authoritarian or dictatorship at worst. Only a strong opposition can prevent the governing party from going off track of democracy and ensure its sustainability.

 


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