GENENEW ASSEFA


In the first installment of this serialized reaction paper, we have tried to capture the underlying dynamics that crowned the EPRDF with a landslide victory. In broad strokes, we attempted to identify four interrelated factors which we believe cogently explain the incumbent’s brilliant success.  With varying degrees of emphases, we probed these closely-related explanatory factors under the following sub-headings: A) Visibility of the impressive developmental changes. B) Effective incumbent campaign strategy. C) Greater voter’s awareness of the constitutional and electoral process. And, D) steep decline in public confidence in the opposition.


In hindsight, however, a no less weighty element must be added to this cluster of factors that conspired to produce a virtual electoral meltdown in the ranks of the opposition. We are referring here to the shift in public-interest issues and the discursive mode of their political articulation that seem to have caught the opposition unawares.  In other words, in the time span leading up to the commencement of the election campaign, a veritable change occurred in the set of political questions that command greater public attention.  Almost unnoticed by the opposition, the change was paralleled by a new mode of political conversation replete with new terms of references by which parties and their ideo-poltical orientations are interrogated.  As it can be surmised from the debacle it suffered at the polls, this proved an unanticipated daunting challenge to the opposition. For it seems to have been caught off guard by the new prism through which politics is perceived and the corollary reconfiguration of the medium of its expression. In consequence, the old slogan ‘One Nation: One People!’ with which the opposition sought to dispatch the incumbent failed to resonate with the voting public. Once these explosive watchwords were diffused, the opposition devolved into a pale and toothless replica of its former self. None of its leaders could cut an impressive figure as they previously did by wrapping themselves in the mantle of Ethiopian unity. Nor could they dazzle urban voters by parading themselves as the torchbearers of national continuity. Much less shine as they did a few years ago in the refracted light of their own rhetorical firework. No doubt the object of their inflammatory propaganda has always been to create a public imagery that recasts the EPRDF  in a diminutive light or a spineless pawn bent on doing Issayas’ anti-Ethiopian biding. Lost was also the political profit that the opposition used to effortlessly amass often by a cheap but malicious spinning of the constitutional principle of self-determination.


 This time around, the scare tactic of churning out alarmist warnings about the specter of national disunity that ostensibly lurked behind Article 39 could not turn the tide. Unlike five years back, the much maligned secession clause could not frighten even susceptible urban voters into throwing their lot with the opposition. Equally useless was the latest ploy designed to disgrace the EPRDF, particularly by the Diaspora fire-spiting extremist wing. The voting public, however, was not to be mislead into denying the incumbent even a few votes on the Diaspora’s prompting.  Much less turn its back as it would on any treacherous government that recklessly cedes Ethiopia’s territory to any nearby secular or Islamic state. Neither was the bulk of the citizenry credulous enough to even consider that the EPRDF would waywardly trade away the country’s vast virgin farm-lands to ‘greedy’ Arab prospectors   -----    for a fraction of its real-estate value, no less, as the opposition would have us believe. Needless to say, none of these half-baked de-legitimization concoctions could save the opposition from utter electoral rout.  Just the same, the onslaught against the constitutionalization of group rights, public ownership of land, or state control of the major service-providing corporations was of no avail.  Even the once damaging tramp card the opposition had at its disposal was of any use.  In other words, upping the ante in terms of bashing the education policy as a generation-stultifying system could not yield the intended election result.


 Logically, under this scenario, the unnerving array of scurrilous jargons, metaphors, shibboleth, insinuations, and innuendos that modulated the language of political opposition lost its appeal. Indeed, proof that the sting was taken out of the opposition’s demonization press, is that no public outrage exploded following the recent allegation of vote fraud. Unrecognizable as the electoral setting has become, the opposition found itself in a precarious bind. It was neither able to wield the flood of political lexicon that fittingly express the tone, inflexion and timber of the new political temperament. Nor was it creative enough to refashion a competing genre to rearticulate its riotous political line and generate an election tidal wave in the urban centers. Understandably, resistance to abandon its archaic political idioms rendered obsolete long before the 2010 election compounded the opposition’s predicament.  For all the boastful self-adulation as an assemblage of impressively affluent elite with matchless educational credentials, few of its top leaders could grasp that times have changed. Not many among them, therefore, is able to hold their own in any sharp political exchange mediated through the new mode of political discourse.


 This is not surprising. For many of these men are more interested in grandstanding than keeping abreast with expansion of voters’ political horizon. Lacking in mental inquisitiveness as most do, it is no wonder that they are unfamiliar with the master conceptual referents of the contemporary medium of political communication. None of these throwbacks to the bygone era of stagnation is conversant in public-interest subjects of, say, affordable housing, business process reengineering, micro-financing, small-scale business enterprise, etc. What proved more vexatious to the supporters of these old-timers was that the EPRDF could wax eloquent in all these issues. In fact, most in leadership positions could, on the spur of the moment, cite an impressive array of facts and figures to illustrate the country’s upward trajectory as measured by these unfamiliar yet reliable indices.  The party chairman, in particular could in an instant deliver a lucid impromptu lecture in a broad-ranged subjects of voters’ concern. Including, of course, in the areas of sustainable development, accelerated pro-poor growth, poverty-reduction or food security. Not least expansion of infrastructural coverage, increased healthcare, educational provisions as well as on environmental protection. One is hard-pressed to think of any opposition figure with a comparable command of knowledge in these pertinent matters that often loom large during elections. Let alone one who could expound with equal gusto on matters of devolution of political decision-making or gender mainstreaming, to mention only two vital agenda-items  that attract huge blocks of  single-issue voters.  In a nutshell, none of the opposition leaders seem to have any inkling that mastering these globally accepted multidimensional methodological constructs is a necessary precondition to do well at the polls.


To the contrary, the bulk of the opposition leadership seems to think of these constructs as irrelevant academic taxonomies.  It appears to be clueless that these are subsumed in a veritable compendium of empirical-cum-theoretical nomenclatures with a built-in terminological regime conjoined by calibrated matrices for evaluating mostly aid-recipient governments. A quick review of the recorded televised election debate demonstrates how the opposition is blasé about these matters. Indeed, there is scarcely a more comical sight than to watch the designated opposition debaters’ make their case.  Throughout the debate, they seem to be more interested in outdoing each other in terms of who could deliver the most tear-jerking jeremiads they can possibly imagine. They go into sentimental tirade, lamenting the impoverishments, deprivations, indignities and injustices the Ethiopian people have been forced to endure under EPRDF’s oppressive regime. By design or otherwise, however, none of their debating briefs seem to be grounded on a shred of evidence. Yet they thoughtlessly try to incriminate the incumbent and simultaneously move voters into tears and rage without providing independently verifiable objective argumentation. Much less proof that can be cross-cheeked against available data or easily accessible factual information.


Even worse is the colloquialism of their unreconstructed terminology they rely on to deliver their combative admonishments of the status quo.  Their barrage of accusations is still couched in self-referential and axiomatic register impossible to prove or disprove by universally shared rational rules of probing.  None of it, in fact, lends itself to widely-accepted objective criteria of determining sound and unsound, valid and invalid, viable and unviable, let alone accurate and inaccurate claims. Adept at wrapping their political contentions in self-evident sounding sound-bits, which their firebrand spokesmen immediately echo, the opposition parties have no use for numbers. No need to temper their unbridled polemical fury by balanced research-based findings or underpin their promises by defensible statistical data or quantifiable indicators expressed in percentages, ratios etc. It is not woeful intellectual deficiency alone that explains why these naysayers are waded to nebulous, vague, blurry and unverifiable blanket assertions often uttered in self-righteous moralistic tone. Clever by half as they are, they reckon that indeterminacy would shield them from empirically-grounded rational scrutiny.  In this, for once at least, they are right.  For if they were to submit what they have to offer in measurable terms, they know that any impartial analytical breakdown of their alternative proposal would expose them for the fraud they are. Theirs can only be likened to the inscrutable ways of a rainmaker or a quack village medicine man. May be this analogy is unfair to pre-Enlightenment physicians.


A voodoo doctor is at least exempt from any obligation to provide explanation as to how and why his panacea works. No patient of his expects instruction on the dosage of the potions he is to take, much less a cautionary advice about the possible side-effects. An apt metaphor that starkly captures the opposition’s mambo-jumbo political recipe rather lies in the present.  Indeed a better analogy is the histrionic sprit-conjuring ramblings of a 21st century bible-belt American faith-healer. Devout Americans with permanent physical disabilities or terminal illness may have nothing to lose by a sacral experiment in faith healing. Ethiopians, however, cannot afford a secular functional equivalent of such an experiment. In other words, they don’t have the luxury to indulge in a manifestly risky exercise and jeopardize their fledgling democracy and unprecedented chance to insure food security. By, that is, voting for an opposition party that by its own admission is unsure of its own continuity. Let alone, for one whose very existence is a hindrance to the country’s promising developmental progress. And, a threat, in fact, to the democratic nexus that the multiethnic peoples of Ethiopia forged between themselves through strenuous political endeavor.


At a more substantial level, fraught as it is with tension, none of the opposition’s core ideo-poltical platform could fly in the face of the country’s political reality and election logic. For instance, as Berket Simon recently pointed out, the opposition makes boastful pledges to scrap Article 39 of the constitution. Yet it expects the peoples of Somali, Gambella, Benshangule, or Oromia regions to vote for it.  This is not to suggest that citizens in these regions are eternally wedded to the incumbent. Without question, most would vote for any party provided it has a better offer than what is currently available. However, one thing is certain. As the 4th round general election proved, these regions would punish any party with a minus-secession clause in its program. This is reinforced by another paradox that Zerihune Teshome observed in a new work in progress. The opposition certainly vows to fold the EPRDF’s Agricultural-led Development Strategy. Yet again it hopes to win majority vote. Logically, this implies redirecting limited state funding away from rural agriculture. This policy option might warrant debate among development economists. But it is clear that it would adversely affect the overwhelming majority of the voting population. As everyone knows, save the opposition, this segment of the enfranchised citizenry happens to be a huge beneficiary of the current pro-peasant policy. It is a mystery, therefore, given its present political awareness level, how it could swing to the anti-rural development opposition and forfeit its advantages. 


Understandably, then, in such massively altered context in which election politics has to be conducted, it is not terribly shocking that the opposition took a trashhing at the polls. In fact, once its emotionally-charged slogans i.e., national emblems, cultural uniformity, territorial indivisibility, historical antiquity, access to sea, ceased to mobilize the public, the opposition was virtually emasculated. One simple indictor of the shift in public interest is that even in casual Keble-level discussions the state of Ethiopia’s power supply, agriculture and basic infrastructure is frequently raised. What is startling is that theses informal discussions are punctuated by concrete references. Unlike our opposition leaders, most of the participants in theses random exchanges speak in quantitative terms about the country’s increased generation of megawatts, yield per hectare, coverage of potable water or health centers etc.  In light of this profoundly transfigured subjective and objective setting, the old opposition could well face political extinction. Already it is in the twilight hours of its reactionary career, digging, as it were, its own grave. The most it can hope for is some form of symbolic continuity by engendering a successor that would carry its banner, but with a different meaning, signifying legitimate dissent: A second generation opposition party, as it were, with the right genetic selection that can adapt to the new environment of ethnic federalism.  Yet one that is capable of challenging the government without questioning the constitutional order. As we saw in this election, under the present socio-political climatic change, there is no space for saber-toothed forces who can only survive under a polarized political environment. 


By way of summation, therefore, it has to be said that at its key coordinates, the zone of engagement where the 2010 election bout played itself out was tilted against the opposition. Thus, we contend that this factor must be included in the list of causes responsible for EPRDF’s landslide victory. Now that we have rounded up our discussion of this subject, it is apt to turn our gaze to the topic that must follow. Those who went through the trouble of reading our first piece would remember that it ended by suggesting one profitable way of continuing the discussion. And, this is, as stated in the text, scanning the main thrust of the responses offered by the key political actors of the election. In the next sequel, therefore, that is precisely what we shall attempt to do.

June 2010