ARE OUR POLITICAL PARTIES COMPATIBILE TO OUR DEMOCRATIC PROCESS?

By Harego Bensa (haregobensa@yahoo.com)

 

Political parties any where in the world constitute an essential component of representative democracy. As has been demonstrated in many parts of the world, political parties play an irreplaceable role in spurring the democratic process as well as the over-all development efforts of nations. The real aim and purpose of any political party in democratic countries, including emerging democracies of the world is generally been transforming its respective nation to the level of citizens’ aspirations.

 

The role that political parties play particularly in expediting democratic process is insurmountable. That is because they are the ones that can constitute and represent the interests of the society at large. They are actually the primary channels that link ordinary citizens with their political representatives. With such paramount significance, the over-arching objective of any political party should be building accountable and responsive government.

 

The effort to build accountable and responsive government primarily requires political parties to craft policies and policy alternatives that might be badly needed to bring about an over-all growth and development in a country. Apart from crafting policies, they have also a critical role in setting agendas for the policy-making efforts of a nation. That is why; well-functioning political parties are said to be central in the process of democratic development.

Be that as it may, do we have such responsible political parties in our country? This is a question that every one of us and above all the political parties operating in the country themselves should answer.

 

In a nut-shell, our political parties are not playing a key role in building democracy, maintaining peace and security, and attaining economic progress. As a result, the contributions made by the great majority of political parties for the over-all development of our country have generally been minimal. What we have recorded so far shows that it is only the ruling EPRDF that is functioning well as a political party. Even such a conclusion might be misleading for the party’s success is entirely dependant on the relative success made by the opposition parties. In other words, the result might have been different had there been competitive political parties in the country.

 

To begin with, the great majority of the opposition parties are not representing the interests of a wide range of peoples despite their claims that they are. As has been proven by their activities both in the past and at present, they are assuming the role of political party with a very little number of memberships. If one may argue that membership size does not affect the functioning of a political party, then one would wonder as to whose interests are the opposition leaders are really articulating.  The serious problem encountered in this regard is manifested by the dominance of parties by a very few individuals. That is why the opposition political movement we have in this country is characterized by the full control of a very few individuals starting from day 1 when the country was set in the democratic process.

 

The second major weakness of the great majority of our opposition parties is their inability to craft policy alternatives. In stead of developing alternative policies and programs that would be vital for the development of the nation, the full time engagement of the majority of their leadership has been geared towards destructive campaigns and hatred politics. Supported by a few partisan local newspapers, the efforts of most of the opposition parties have been restricted to fault finding, exaggerating trivial matters and in many occasions in fabrications and distortion of truth for their own narrow advantages. The critical deficiency they have faced in crafting policies was made more vivid when all of the opposition parties, save one failed to exploit the new opportunities availed by the parliamentary procedural law to express their views and vision to the general public more than ever. Despite their recent complaints about narrowing political space since the year 2005, almost all of them did not manage to exploit the space created so far.

 

Thirdly, they are not doing their important job of agenda setting for any of the policy-making efforts of the country.  This activity of a political party is no less important than crafting policy alternatives. The political experience we have in this country so far, however, shows that it is the ruling party that usually sets policy agendas to the political spectrum as well as to the general public. Even then, the life time dedication of almost all of the opposition parties appears to have been thwarting the agendas set by the ruling party by all means. They do not even want to consider that their views supply important inputs to the development of viable policies. Leave alone, their strong oppositions to decisive policy matters project them as public enemies working against the national interests of the country. They waste much of their energy and expertise to destroy any new ideas for the simple reason that they are originated from the ruling party. There is no doubt, all of such subversive activities emanate from their inability to propose any substantial new idea or alternative to those proposed by the ruling party.

 

One can substantiate this by their reaction to the drafting of the recently endorsed Anti-Terrorism Law. While they blatantly opposed the draft law, their rationale was that the fight against terrorism is the agenda of other countries and hence irrelevant to Ethiopia . Even some of them went to the extreme of denying the fact that Ethiopia had frequently been subject to international terrorism attacks in the past. They have also expressed their skepticism that the new law might have been designed to quell them as opposition parties. In stead of grossly denying the sheer truth or expressing unrealistic skepticism, they should have contributed a lot in refining the law so that it will be one of the legal instruments that can be used to protect the peace, democracy and economic development of the nation from possible threats of terrorism.

 

One can also add the opposition expressed by them to the recently proposed regulation on how to subsidize political parties. Though, the new regulation came in response to the great concerns of the opposition parties themselves on the ground that they cannot fairly compete with the ruling party which they said is the most affluent one, their opposition to the provisions was so strong that it appeared to have aimed at blocking the subsidy altogether.  And for sure, much of their arguments were funny. One of the point they expressed their anger is the requirement that political parties must disclose sources of donations or else they may loose their undisclosed money and face charges. The other point they vehemently opposed is the requirement to give back election subsidized funds whenever they boycott elections. They have even opposed the stipulation that more funds be given to political parties that field more women candidates with the objective of empowering women. Their argument for opposing this last stipulation was that this will only benefit the ruling party.

 

The fourth weakness of the opposition political parties in Ethiopia is their inability to integrate different political groups and individuals to the democratic process so that there can be a robust opposition party and vibrant multi-party system in the country. This is one of the most important jobs that any political party anywhere in the world has to do. Had the opposition parties in Ethiopia been successful at least in this regard, they would have been hailed for contributing something to the democratization process.

 

In fact, there are times when some of the senior politicians in the inner circle of the oppositions shuttle here and there to forge an alliance of opposition parties. But the important task comes lately and only in the advent of elections. Even then, the alliance is usually doomed to fail. The most prevalent factor for their failure is the lack of well-developed policies and party programs of individual parties that would have served them to lay the foundation for meaningful political alliance. Apart from such critical deficiency, the ill-intended plans for alliance become another factor that entangles the whole efforts to align the opposition parties.  As has been witnessed in the past and most notably at present, the only bondage that sticks several opposition parties together is an over-riding ambition to remove the ruling party from power. The rush to forge an alliance usually is short-lived even before any consideration as to what kind of government will they have or what agenda the alliance will have if it wins the elections that determine the fate of over 70 million peoples. Thus, lack of coherent ideologies or policy agendas and more importantly deep differences on trivial matters among individual parties usually ruins the hastily-crafted alliance sooner than later.

 

The other problem, which is by far the worst that bars meaningful opposition political alliance, is the alliance itself.  Truly speaking, political alliances of opposition parties usually turn themselves into real battle grounds to control leadership. Some of the peculiar experiences we have in this regard compel us to doubt even the political integrity of some of our opposition leaders. The typical undemocratic characteristics of a very few opposition party leaders are often reflected even in their pre-alliance activities and to some extent in their internal or external relations, in their clock and dagger activities and more frequently internal and external disputes.

 

 The political debate organized by the Embassy of Norway in Addis Ababa a few months ago, for instance, was about to fail when the invited heads of opposition parties threatened to leave the hall on the ground that the chairman of one of the opposition parties, EDP/ Medhin was also there to attend. The discussion was carried out as planned only for the retreat of the EDP leader saying that he did not want to disturb the good spirit of the occasion. But he did not take time when he vehemently expressed his dismay at the irresponsible behavior of fellow politicians. He told a press conference he immediately summoned, that it has increasingly been difficult to work with some of the political leaders as opposition parties. One may wonder as to why there should be no tolerance even among one another; leave alone with the ruling party. Their political opposition by virtue should have aligned them together and provided them with a platform to settle individual differences through political dialogue for their own sake, at least.

 

 One can also add the recent split made in the leadership of UDJ. The cause for the division was internal power struggle as has been explained by the founders and senior political leaders of the party. The two camps blamed undemocratic leadership exercised by one another. That is a self-assertion to the kind of political leadership entrenched into the inner-most circle of most of the opposition parties in the country.

 

 Frankly speaking, our opposition parties are not even in a position to properly organize voters. That is the minimum job a political party has to do for its own sake. While we are now some 10 months away from the 4th National Elections, most of the opposition parties are not even sure whether they will take part in that important political event. Their preparations to announce names of their candidates to the up-coming elections is little or  nil while the deadline set by the Electoral Board is to be expired by the end of November 2009. That is because, as has been said time and again, their major occupation to date has been smear campaigns. And no wonder, one of the parties has already announced that it may boycott the elections unless the government amended some of the laws. As a political party, it should have known that elections are primarily the rights of the peoples of Ethiopia . Besides, it should have known that its boycott will serve only the ruling and other political parties. As a political party, it should not also expect the government to cajole them or meet their demands in order to allure them to the elections. Such demands in the advent of elections rather project their own weaknesses and not anybody else’s.

 

 In general one can confidently speak about the weak political structure that exists in the great majority of opposition parties in Ethiopia . As a result, most of them are not functioning well as political parties and are not playing a central role in expediting the democratic development in the country. Their entire presence is felt only in the advent of elections.

 

Under such dire conditions, one may not expect the opposition political parties to deliver public goods or promote development in the country.  That might be true to the rest of emerging democracies across the world as well.

 

But as a typical feature of opposition political parties in Ethiopia , they even strive to destroy the existing political system in a desperate move to make up their own deficient party structures.. Inciting violence and igniting conflicts has become a primary target of most of the opposition parties in Ethiopia . As a result, they have not only failed to contribute to the emerging democracy but also have reoriented their objectives towards destroying the emerging democratic system just in its bud.

 

Thus, with such existing political spectrum, I believe, the great responsibility to safeguard the emerging democracy of the country will be in the hands of the peoples and government of Ethiopia . I also believe that the international community has a role to play to some extent.