Let us not make a mistake; the TPLF is first and foremost a Communist Party
A communist party is, by definition, a political party that works for the application of the social and economic principles of communism through state policy. While accomplishing this, a communist party organizes itself in certain distinguishable ways. Attaining communism as a social goal aside, the TPLF is a communist party when evaluated against the defining characteristics of a ‘communist party’. And, the set of behaviors one sees in the organization now cannot be understood in isolation from its historical root as a Marxist-cum-Nationalist party. No doubt, the fact that it is an organization created and built in a context of an armed struggle has reinforced some of the attributes of a communist party. All the same, the TPLF is well steeped in the tradition of a communist party. From the very days it was born up until this moment, it embodies the pure characters of such a party even though it does not anymore make an official acknowledgment of some of these as its own organizational styles.
1. Iron discipline is the unshakable rule of the game
A communist party invokes and enforces iron discipline. Members must toe the line and respect party rules and procedures without fail. The consequence for not doing so is serious. This characteristic is all the more stringent in the TPLF (compared to an average communist party) as discipline was essential to success during the armed struggle. Armed struggle required iron discipline of its members in face of adversities normally encountered during such a struggle and the long arduous journey ahead.
The TPLF is known for a high level party discipline and members toeing the line. For instance, it was unlawful, even criminal, to behave romantically with the opposite sex, let alone to enjoy loving relationship. To indulge in sexual affair was simply a cause for death penalty, or at least a purging from the party. Even in their interaction with the populace in the ‘liberated lands’, the fighters, be it individually or in a group, had to respect the belongings of the peasant, his spouse and would not take anything away forcibly. Furthermore, it was also highly remarkable that no information would leak from conferences of the TPLF at which a thousand or more members would participate. Everybody was tight lipped about his internal party politics to outsiders or to strangers.
This might have loosened up, certainly has, in time. And, internal discipline of members may not be as such a defining characteristic right now. All the same, the party would always try to restore discipline to a large degree and remains one of the core issues to critique members or leaders about.
2. Democratic Centralism is the way to go
A communist party gives little recognition to personal freedom and difference of opinion. Decisions are handed top down, even though there is a pretension of bottom up and grass root democracy. Decisions made at the upper echelon of the leadership must be put into action without the slightest deviation. Once position is taken and consensus reached, what follows is unanimity in message and tone. Every one dances to the same tune and lyric – with very little room for improvisation or personal twist. Leaders and members, whether pro or against a certain position, are expected to parade likewise once decision is passed and party position adopted.
Even the guy at the helm of power is expected to act and behave in the same manner. We all remember when Meles Zenawi, in 2001, recollected that he had not supported the war with Eritrea (1998/2000) and in spite of that, according to him, he had led the war with the same resolve as the ones who had supported it. This is not possible in systems where capitalist or liberal form of party formation prevails. Taking this case further, Meles should have stepped aside, if not leave the party, from the position of a premier and let the war ‘enthusiasts’ lead the war. You cannot oppose a war and lead it at the same time. It would be a serious dissonance of some kind.
The fact that no member of parliament in Ethiopia voices a dissenting opinion or votes against the party stand is also a manifestation of the principle of democratic centralism. It is true that such a phenomenon is also evident in the western democracies which follow parliamentary system of government. However, in countries ruled by a communist style parties, this is quite well emphasized. All debates are confined to the party floor behind closed doors. It is not possible at all, rumors aside, what persuasions there are within the party, much less who championed what idea. To the public, the party and the parliament (in particular where it is 100% one party like ours) have a monolithic view of the world.
3. Consensus building should take what it takes
The comfort zone for a communist party is a unified party position with no single dissenting opinion. Hence, voting is not a common exercise and remains the last resort option. For that reason, consensus building is the norm which should come about at even excessive cost. It is therefore in line that we have marathon meetings which run into days, weeks and months. This actually is the single most defining characteristics of the TPLF. It does not matter when; during the armed struggle, during the transition period or now after 26 years of journey leading a government. The TPLF is inherently a party of long drawn meetings. The current central committee is just but one evidence of it. Right now, central committee members (who I guess are about 45) are in a closed meeting since weeks and nobody could foretell when this meeting would end.
4. All others are retrogrades and subversives
For a communist party, essentially, all other parties are retrogrades and subversive ones. This is expressly stated by the TPLF when it says ‘all other avenues other than that of the TPLF are avenues for doom’. One reason why communist parties have to put up with other parties is the force of the ‘current’. In this age of plurality and liberalism, it would be very unacceptable for one to oppose the existence of competing parties. However grudgingly, it has to accept some degree of political competition, at least in words if not in deed. Intrinsically, however, wherever opportunities allow, a communist party would subvert the existence of competing parties and does all that is possible to monopolize power. It is no coincidence that we have a ‘parliament’ that is 100% controlled by one party, the EPRDF, and this cascades likewise to the regions.
5. Democracy attenuates at the bottom
Partly in line with the characters raised above, the exercise of democracy, as may be manifested in open debates, gets limited at the lower apparatus or with the mass of members. All communist parties, almost invariably, have two bodies of leadership. One is called ‘polit bureau’ or in the current EPRDF parlance the ‘executive committee’. This is a small close knit group which implements the big decisions of the party. The second group, which is a larger one, is called ‘central committee’ and, among others, elects the polit bureau, and debates party positions before they are routed to the general assembly or party congress.
In the two leadership strata referred to above, there is a relative democracy. Members may debate and freely air their views. Ordinary members, who are organized in basic units or cells, are supposed to understand party ideology and positions. They are, however, least expected to debate and advance positions. They are there to obey instructions and act. It is possible that they query and probably present some degree of challenge, but at a risk; collective critiquing and self-critiquing could get the better of them. In fact, back in 1992/93, ordinary members of the party humorously critiqued their party saying ‘TPLF’s democracy is like a moda englize (wide-top and narrow-bottom pair of trouser worn in the past in Ethiopia as a fashion)
f. There is unlimited appetite for membership
Communist parties are zealous for high number membership. Even when it is formidable thing to do given the requirement for discipline, the parties are out there aggressively recruiting members after members. We hear the EPRDF taking a pride in that it has a membership size of over 6 million; which is a staggering number by any account. As if not enough, the EPRDF has a wider web of membership through the popular associations; the youth, the women and the like. This helps it bring the entire society within its orbit of influence and crowd out (suffocate) opposition.
Popular associations were solid powerhouse to win the war against the Derg by helping the TPLF build a strong rearguard force to reckon with. So are they as useful now in ensuring dominance of the party in all political and economic spheres of the society.
To conclude, the TPLF lives on with the same set of communist cultures of organization as in the past, albeit with less vitality in some of these. And, it is naïve to expect a dramatic change of style and culture in the future. For that matter, communist parties are consistent to death in the way they do things and tend to be impervious to change. More so, when the organizational style was created and took shape in ‘armed struggle’.
Teshome Beyene Berhe 11-25-17
I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org