A Call for Reform of the Existing Electoral System Timely

Last week has brought yet another sweeping election win for the ruling EPRDFites. The preliminary results the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), the ultimate decision maker on the issue which has obtained more power through new electoral laws, disclosed that the ruling Revolutionary Democrats and their regional allies have grabbed 442 seats in the federal legislature. The disclosure entails a complete defeat of opposition.

Even results for 105 seats of Parliament yet to be known, the ruling EPRDFites have already made sure that they are going to stay on the throne for five more years. This is not news as such, considering the state of competitive politics in the nation. The results, nonetheless, will simply be a numeric confirmation of the continuation of their rule.

It is not a mood of cheer that exists within the camp of the EPRDFites, though. It is rather unease that seems to prevail. There appears to be no clarity in their camp on how to interpret the result. They seem to be worried about what the future holds for them and the whole nation.

They are in no way ready to admit that the results are an outcome of their intolerance of dissent and hence unquestioned dominance over the political space. Ironically, it is an outcome difficult to cover it under either the theory of dominant party or developmental competitive politics. Obviously, something has gone wrong and the nation’s politics has broken down.

To his credit, Meles Zenawi, the late chairman of the EPRDF and prime minister of the republic, had rightly seen the risks of a political system dominated by the voice of a single party. In his post-election speech in 2010, he went out to the public and had promised to serve even those who had not elected his party. He even went further to claim that his party would be doing everything to engage the opposition on key national issues, even outside of the legislative platform.

Practice aside, Meles saw that the legitimacy of a government emanates not only from its support base, but also from that of its opponents. He had seemed to have rightly grasped the fundamental weaknesses of democracy, a system of governance wherein the majority presides over the minority. By promising to serve across the board, then, he was being considerate of the minority.

In a way, 2010 was the first time the political wind blew in such a direction. Meles’ observation, therefore, was pretty much an expert judgment as it was too early to see the practical realities of legislating without the presence of and engagement with the opposition. For those who managed to live through the days, unlike Meles who died in the middle of his term, the whole situation seemed characterised by inefficiency, complacency and opportunism.

The last five years have shown the public what it means to have a legislature with only one opposition Member of Parliament (MPs). Dwarfed by democratic centralism, constituency politics, a much hoped for hype within the political circles, failed to materialise. Instead, predesigned questioning and partisan responses became the norm.

There was little that the lone opposition, Girma Seifu, and the independent, Asheber W. Giorgis(DD) MPs could have done. They were often exposed to idiomatic condemnation, outright labelling and ridiculing. Hence, legislation was not served with the benefits of political scrutiny. The legislative intent of the ruling party eventually translated into laws with little or no scrutiny, at the risk of complete exclusion of voices and interests opposed to it.

Even the once hopeful, energetic oversight practice of MPs over the executive, considered as a rare awakening at the time, failed to continue at the same pace, and inertia set in. Parliament fell prey to the inherent political complacency of uncompetitive politics.

Regrettably, the situation seems poised to continue as such. Of course, there is an unlikely and remote chance for change, considering the results for 105 seats are yet to be announced. But considerable change in the structural dynamics is largely not within the horizon.

Attributing it all to the ruling EPRDFites would be problematic, however.

It was up to their adversaries to grow taller than the challenges posed by the narrow political space. They have proven to be different from the EPRDFites in that they failed to learn from the debacle of the national elections in 2005. By and large, they remained fragmented. They seemed to prefer to stay as personalised fiefdoms. Often, they were seen riding the horses of their own demise.

Had they been wise, they could have learned from what happened in 2005. The astounding performance of the opposition parties in 2005 could largely be attributed to their united electoral fronts. As they stood united, they avoided voter fragmentation and employed their resources very effectively. Complemented with the policy passivity of the EPRDF towards urban constituencies, the tide turned in their favour.

Sadly, though, they seem to have learnt no lessons from it all. A decade after, opposition political figures still spend much time bickering and talking about how different they are from each other than the incumbent. Some even squabble over the invitations of the other to embassies events. This was certainly quite disappointing for their supporters. They have only themselves to blame.

Partisan failures aside though, the latest results show that Ethiopian politics is at crossroads. It needs to either adapt or face the ultimate possibility of corrosion. The representativeness of the electoral system is at stake and the task at hand is how to correct the dysfunction.

Under the existing first-past-the-post system, it is the candidate that gets the highest number of votes from an electoral district that wins. All those candidates who are unable to make it to the first post would automatically be out of the political play. The very system designed to ensure inclusiveness has an unintended results – exclusion!

All those who have voted for candidates other than the first one would not be represented in the political system. In a country where there are over 75 political parties, it is obvious that things are more intricate.

In the cast of 2010, for instance, the EPRDF had managed to get only 22.5 million of the popular vote. But along with its regional affiliates, it managed to control 99.6pc of the seats in the federal legislature. Political parties with considerable popular votes, such as Ethiopia Federal Democratic Unity Forum (1.4 million), ANDP (980,213), AEUP (262,499), and EDP (75,684) remained unrepresented in the political system. It is not different this time around, either. No less than 30pc of voters in Addis Abeba have voted for candidates from the opposition parties. They will not see their voice aired in Parliament, for all the 23 seats the capital has there are all taken by the EPRDFites.

Certainly, part of the problem is the fragmentation of the political parties. Nonetheless, the biggest beast is the electoral system that fails to be inclusive.

One priority, in which parties must therefore invest their time and energy in the years to come, has to be initiating the dialogue on changing the electoral way to a proportional representation system. Every vote should matter; and, the possibility for one party’s dominance would be considerably reduced.

Of course, an electoral system organised under a proportional representation system would favour further fragmentation of political parties. Yet, the ultimate decision would be in the hands of the voting public.

But if the issue is all about giving democracy its due place, and possibly correcting the weak edges, then, Ethiopia will benefit so much from a proportional representation electoral system. As their dominance is hurting them, by virtue of depriving them of critical reflection vital for their governance, the EPRDFites should have no reason to resist the call for reforming the electoral system.

It does not end there, though. Creating a political space that is favourable to competition and tolerant of dissent is the basic issue. Neither democracy nor economic development can be sustained without a political sphere that is inclusive, competitive, deliberative and vibrant.

Regardless of the latest election results, therefore, the whole focus of the political forces, especially the ruling EPRDFites, ought to be on building such a system. In light of this, then, there is little to cheer in a sweeping victory.