Opposition parties’ brawl
reveals inherent problems
quarrel between opposition parties Medrek, UDJ and AEUP has occupied much of
the space in newspapers and magazines, as well as online platforms in the past
couple of months ago, “Medrek” opposition coalition expelled its member UDJ
party for a “disciplinary offence” and “for making statements that are contrary
to the political program of the coalition” after a protracted disagreement
between the chiefs of UDJ and the other parties in Medrek.
UDJ and AEUP parties started negotiation to form their own new opposition
coalition. After making too much fuss about their unity and plan, they suddenly
announced the negotiation failed and started blaming one another. Now, the
media is busy presenting their accusations and responses.
if the two quarrels were not enough there was also a third story. The AEUP
party which conducted a general meeting and elected its “new” leadership three
months ago is now bogged down in a power struggle. Almost half of the higher
leadership including the secretariat general is petitioning for an emergency
general meeting against the president of the party.
events are a reflection of the state of opposition politics in Ethiopia.
is commonplace among opposition parties of Ethiopia to blame the government and
the ruling party for their weak and fractured state. Some western organizations
and individual pundits and journalists make similar assertions without checking
the matter in detail.
also misplaced blames on the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Front for becoming
a highly popular party and dominant party. Nevertheless, EPRDF's ascendance to its
current status did not come over-night. To the contrary, EPRDF made multi-party
politics a reality and provided the essential framework for their continued
fact, opposition parties received legal recognition for the first time in
Ethiopia in 1991 when the EPRDF defeated the brutal military dictatorship. In demonstration
of EPRDF's committed to multi-party democracy, the EPRDF-led transitional
government didn't hold the formation of opposition parties until a legal
framework is created.
EPRDF invited all parties that didn't declare war and expressed their interest to
take part in peaceful political activity in the transitional government hence a
Transitional Government Council consisting dozens of parties was formed. The
seat allocation was determined at the June 1991 Transitional conference by
representatives of almost all political parties, trade unions and other
associations, including public figures. Few months later, a very liberal legislation
concerning the formation of political parties was put in force. Shortly after
that, a multi-party election was held and that continued until today with an
increasingly wider and leveled play-field that facilitates the opposition parties'
ability to compete with the ruling party.
this opening for multi-party democracy, opposition parties have been
organizing, forming coalition and disintegrating. But the organizing and
disintegration process was not due to the natural process of any healthy
organization. To the contrary, many parties start to disintegrate before they even
started operating properly.
EPRDF continued to demonstrate its commitment to multi-party politics. One of
the recent examples is the decision of the EPRDF leadership to share its share
of finance with smaller parties. Each year when the government allocates
finance for political parties, EPRDF gives away more than a million birr of its
share to other opposition parties in a transparent manner and criteria
determined by a council of opposition parties' consultation forum.
the recent quarrel among the opposition parties discredits the frequent excuse
of opposition parties that government harassment prevented them from being
organized and from competing effectively with EPRDF.
it is the weakness of the opposition parties themselves that undermined their
ability to become a real electoral threat to EPRDF. They are divided over
questions of ideology, strategy and tactic. Opposition parties again and again
failed to design clear policy and program alternatives to present themselves as
more competent than EPRDF and to communicate to the people in an effective way.
They had also failed to form and sustain real broad-based coalitions countless
times since 1993.
recent and common excuse of the opposition parties is that Ethiopia's
developmental state paradigm favors EPRDF and limits the participation of
opposition parties. This is another major misleading claim unsupported by
dominant party system is not an invention of EPRDF, it was observed in the
histories of developmental states in Asia, such as Japan, Taiwan, etc. These
landslide triumphs of a dominant party are witnessed in several democracies in
Africa, Scandinavia and East Asia and most of the time they demonstrate the
flaws and inherent problems of the opposition parties, besides the broad-based
nature and effective mobilization of the dominant party.
of the most cited example is the case of Botswana, a country which is known for
having the longest African multi-party system. However, the dominant party
controls the government and ruled the country since independence.
dominant party systems do not come through undemocratic means. They are an
outcome of careful scientific analyses of the politico-economic realities and an
effective mobilization of social forces.
former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi explained the democratic nature of the
developmental state and the emergence of the dominant party system in the
following manner: "Democratic developmental states have been an even
rarer species than developmental states in general. But those states that have
played a developmental role and have done so in a democratic fashion, such as
the social-democratic coalitions in some Scandinavian countries and the center-right
coalition in Post Second World War Japan, the so called dominant partly
democracies can point to one way out....The ruling coalitions in these
countries have had regular, free, open and fair elections, and the basic
political and human rights have been respected. They thus fully qualify as
democratic regimes. But they have won elections repeatedly and have been in
power for long-stretches. In the case of Japan the ruling coalition has been in
power for almost 50 years.
the votes of the peasants who constitute the bulk of the coalition, with the
democratic potentials of a socially transformed peasant, the developmental
coalition will have what it needs to rule democratically to ensure continuity
by democratic means and to stamp out patronage and rent-seeking activities. A
coalition based on the very sector, which has historically been the victim,
rather than the beneficiary of patronage and rent-seeking activities will have
all the will to stump it out.
coalition that covers much of the rural and urban population but is firmly
based on the rural base, that includes all those that have very little to gain
from patronage and rent-seeking, a coalition that includes the vast majority of
the population and hence can guarantee continuity through the democratic
process would be a solid base for a state that is both democratic and
developmental. Such a state would in effect be one form of the so-called
dominant party or dominant coalition democracy. Such a state based on a solid
and dominant coalition of forces who have no stake in patronage and
rent-seeking would be able to avoid and overcome socially wasteful patronage
and rent-seeking.....The most likely scenario for a state that is both
democratic and developmental to emerge is in the form of a dominant party or
dominant coalition democracy."
as Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's explanation shows the emergence of a dominant
party is simply a result of the democratic operation of social and democratic
forces and cannot be an excuse for opposition parties.
major problems behind Ethiopia's opposition are not different from those
observed in other rent-seeking political economies in African countries and beyond.
In most of such countries, "political parties are plagued by weak
organizations, low level of institutionalization, and weak links to the society
they are supposed to represent.”
of their major limitations is the absence of democratic centralism - the
principle that all members shall abide by the decision reached democratically
and after sufficient consultations. Moreover, they also lack the political and
institutional culture that keeps them from breaking apart; it is common to see
opposition parties waste most of their time occupied with recurrent intra-party
it is to be expected that Medrek, UDJ and AEUP, as well as other similar
parties cannot escape from damaging intra-party fights that threatens their
existence as long as they fail to distinguish anarchy from democracy and
re-organize themselves properly. Accusing EPRDF for their internal problems
didn't take them anywhere in the last two decades.
fact, the lack of internal cohesiveness of opposition party organizations goes
beyond the question of enforcing party by-laws and respecting collective
decision making organs of the party. The very reason they are formed is most of
the time dubious. Many of the opposition parties in Ethiopia are established
around individual personalities. They mirror the character of "personality
based opposition parties". They revolve around one or a group of
individuals who are considered as "intellectual",
individuals, who are often tied to the previous regime or the business elite,
form the parties with the intent of perusing personal ambition as well as
interests of a small elite group connected to them. Therefore, they do not have
much interest in a democratic intra-party system that will probably remove them
from leadership and question the merit of the party's program and tactics. Therefore,
the opposition parties are often deliberately kept without any serious
structures beyond the higher executive committee that is personally controlled
by the chairman and his associates.
good example of this is; a few years ago when a split occurred in ONC party,
the then Chairman of the party Dr. Merera said that the other faction used a
fake stamp because the real one is kept in his home. Keeping stamps, party
documents and finance, etc. at the chairman house is considered not as misconduct
rather as a cautious action by opposition leaders and their supporters. As a
result, we can infer that the opposition party's lack of mass-base is their own
making, despite what opposition officials routinely tell the world.
even a properly functioning organizational system at their head office, let
alone at lower levels, it is unimaginable to have proper interaction with the
urban lower class, the women associations, the farmers and the pastoralist. Opposition
party officials, though they fully control all activities of their party, they
give it only a fraction of their time. They are usually busy furthering their
business and education.
their election time hasty works often involve unrealistic promises, shady
promises like tax amnesty, smear campaign against government officials and
exploiting narrow and rent-seeking tendencies in the public. These efforts may
generate some result for a while but they fail to win hearts and minds and fail
to create a sustained constituency.
these tactics has become less and less effective as the people become more
politically aware and educated. One of the continuing problems of the
opposition parties is their failure to advance different policy alternatives to
the voters. They are frail in terms of developing a wide-ranging political
vision. Opposition political parties which are led by lone, part-time
politicians do not offer alternate policies to the people. They simply claim
the "capability" of the opposition party leaders to lead the government
“better” than the ruling party.
types of political parties do not lead to stability of multi-party system in
the long run. If ruling officials are failing the people, it is the charge of
the opposition to step in, in an articulate, clear and rational manner, to
offer alternative policy choices on how to deal with the trials that meet the
opposition parties expect to be considered by the majority of Ethiopians, they
should offer their alternative policy and show the people how they would do
things differently. In other words, as EPRDF usually advise them, they should
show their policy alternatives on education, health, children, unemployment and
majority of the Ethiopian opposition political parties are short-lived and do
not have experience. Therefore, citizens do not get a chance to weigh
opposition parties’ accomplishments over time. Moreover, one of the most
important flaws of such types of opposition parties, as stated by many
researchers, is that they are rarely developed out of the hopes and aspirations
of the society. Rather, they are the making of personal ambitions, grievances
and rent-seeking intentions. The EPRDF’s mass movement experience and its long
history of achievements dwarf the stature of these opposition parties in the
face of the voters.
root problem of the opposition is their reliance and official scramble for
external funding. External funding including diaspora, in principle, is
considered, even in developed democracies as an effort to impact the result of
national elections and the directions of political parties.
of all, foreign funding is considered as something that violates the basic
principle of democracy, i.e., the election of governments should express the
political preferences of the politically empowered citizens.
the political party leaders could turn into totalitarian leaders and may employ
a monolithic leadership style. Then they could reject to consider criticisms
from their colleagues fearing the disclosure of their shady practices.
the political parties’ dependency on external funding may limit or decline
their attachment to their electorate. The political parties’ link with the
voters will be fewer as long as they continue to be reliant on foreign aid. Moreover,
if the political parties’ link with the voters decreases, they no longer echo
the view of the voters because their leaders live comfortable life thanks to
the foreign aid.
foreign funding could also lead in to the creation of “party entrepreneurs”
i.e. personalities who form political parties to access internationally funds.
Therefore, many ambitious persons would be encouraged to form political parties
as a short path to fast personal fortune. These circumstances lead to the
further breaking up of political parties: a development barely conducive to
democratic alliance. Therefore, currently, many observers believe that foreign
funding is both unethical and counterproductive, as it undermines the integrity
of the opposition parties and the political system they work in.
result of all these flaws and also with the outcome of weakening themselves
even more, opposition parties tend to boycott elections. However, as observed
by researchers in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa, there are many cases where
the opposition parties boycott elections even if the elections are confirmed
“free and fair” just to discredit the ruling party, and when they realize their
chance of winning is low.
all these structural, tactical and ideological flaws, it is inconceivable how these
parties can become a real player in the national politics and put the ruling
party in check.
problems cannot be solved by simple quick-fixes; rather they need a real
surgery with the participation of all stakeholders. The opposition media should
better stop scratching the ego of these misguided opposition personalities
rather push them for real reforms that will make them a meaningful players.
then, Ethiopia shall continue its democracy and economic stride. It is the shoe
that should fit the foot, not the other way round.