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Speaking Truth to Power: The Election in Tigray




Speaking Truth to Power: The Election in Tigray


Elias Dawit 09-07-20


Democracy is not easy. It exposes the inherent flaws in governance and lays bare the weak underbelly of a country’s institutions. Democracy is risky. The people’s choices may not match the challenges that lay ahead and can pull a country backwards—reversing hard-fought gains and impeding a progressive way forward. Democracy is messy. It can cause accelerated turmoil and uncertainty. There are no shortcuts to democracy.


Elections, fundamental to the democratic process, are not for the weak at heart. Despite the flaws inherent in every electoral process, the peoples’ right to choose—and reject—their leaders are fundamental to the democratic process.


In 1992, Ethiopia began its journey towards democracy with elections that suffered from tremendous flaws and shortcomings. Yet, each election became better, culminating in the groundbreaking 2005 election. According to the Carter Presidential Center’s final report,“Ethiopia witnessed its first genuinely competitive campaign period with multiple parties fielding strong candidates.” Although followed by violence and the refusal of the majority of opposition candidates to take their seats in the parliament, Ethiopia’s pre-election period was marked by open competition, widespread voter participation and vibrant media coverage.

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The opposition’s unfortunate decision not to take their seats in the parliament had a long-term effect on the electoral process. Without a robust opposition, democracy weakened, and the subsequent elections lacked the vitality competition brings to the electoral process.


Although diluted, elections took place very five years as required by the Constitution. One could argue that the absence of a viable opposition took the teeth out of the election. This is a fact. The relationship between the EPRDF government and opposition parties took place within the context of a political culture based on a zero-sum gain of winning all or losing all. The electoral process suffered from the overall dysfunctional political culture Ethiopians were unable to transform; yet, elections took place as required by the Ethiopian Constitution because democracy is aspirational. It is not an end state but a process that must be respected and carried out.


The spectacle surrounding Tigray’s  election this week—what should be considered an ordinary event in the political life of Ethiopia—is extraordinary. In what country, other than Ethiopia, is an election the cause of threats, intimidation and, according to the Prime Minister’s party, an act of aggression against the federal government?


The international community has followed suit in agreeing with the federal government. Still in the throes of its misguided and ill-informed infatuation with the Prime Minister, the international community has reacted to this election as if it were some sort of malign plot engineered to---what? Expose the authoritarian tendencies of the current government? Shed light on the Prime Minister’s clumsy move to maintain power despite clear indications that he has lost most of his support inside Ethiopia? Show that the reasoning behind the delay in national elections is but a cover for a Prime Minister seeking to replicate the power exercised by his mentor in the north?


On September 5th, Ethiopia’s upper parliament called the formation of an electoral board in Tigray illegal and said any actions taken by it would be unenforceable. Does Tigray not have the right to elect its own leaders. Has the Constitution been changed in the dead of night to deny the peoples’ right to elections?


The decision of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to delay elections is one major step back from democracy and one step forward towards authoritarianism. It is a slap in the face of every Ethiopian citizen alive today and every Ethiopian who died in the struggle against the monarchy and the Derg.


Tigray’s decision to hold its regional elections, despite international condemnation, is the right decision—the only decision.


There is an extraordinary significance attached to this election on two levels. The most obvious significance is a referendum on the TPLF’s continued leadership. The people of Tigray, in no uncertain terms, had expressed their dissatisfaction with the TPLF through citizen forums, party meetings, news articles and social media. It was no secret that was little love for the TPLF leadership when the government collapsed, and former officials returned to Tigray.


And now, the people will decide if the TPLF will continue to lead or another political party will sit at the head of the table. It is the people’s right to choose.


For the rest of Ethiopia, this election stands as a bulwark against the creeping dictatorship that now rules from the palace grounds.


A philosopher, Hannah Arendt, in explaining the complicity of the ordinary German person in the genocide of six million Jewish people, wrote about “the banality of evil.” In other words, evil is not always recognizable.


By normalizing this hostility to holding an election, we are participating in a partisan political exercise intended to delegitimize a legitimate process. This is wrong.


The journalists and election observers invited to Tigray should view this election as a legitimate process that allows the people to choose their leaders. The Prime Minster and his rubber-stamp parliament should not set the terms of this democratic process.


By accepting the false claims of the federal government surrounding the legality of a right enshrined in the Ethiopian Constitution, we cannot claim innocence in denying the right of the people to exercise their democratic right to choose.


Democracy guarantees the ordinary person the opportunity to speak truth to power. The people of Tigray will speak truth to power in this election—both inside Tigray, beyond its borders throughout Ethiopia and to a global community that is complicit by turning its back.




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