Appetite for Political Engagement

In the recent French presidential election, where Emmanuel Macron was declared the winner, there was much talk of voting being a civic duty. Now, this must, to some of us at least, sound like a stretch. Voting – a duty? A (civil) right, of course, but not a duty. Rights are fun, the kind of perks we recall only when we are denied them. Duties, on the other hand, are obligations we average people – they do not seem to apply to the wealthy, tyrants and kings – have to reluctantly put up with. They are expectations that have to be fulfilled as part of a written agreement, the constitution, with the state.

There is a friend of mine that regularly journeys to and fro Dallas, Texas, and Addis Abeba. At more than one occasion, he has related to me the political activism of youngsters in Dallas, while here in the capital of Ethiopia few people even know who the mayor is. The mayor of Dallas is Mike Rawlings, very easy, a general knowledge that even the homeless person on the impoverished side of the street seems to possess. This friend of mine intimated that maybe this is the main problem with democracy in Ethiopia, that people simply do not pay enough attention, and are so disconnected with politics that the only time they take note is when the problem has come knocking down their doors.

There is something to be said about the lack of political participation in Ethiopia. But I do not agree with the premise that people are to blame for it. Citizens have a life to lead. In the morning they go to work, in the evening they come back to their houses to help their children with homework. We should not harp on them if they preferred to spend what remaining time they have watching Seifu Fantahun make nonsensical jokes on EBS instead of tuning into VOA or EBC. Life is too short.

So what should politicians do? How should they engage their constituents? What is it that Rawlings has done for the people of Dallas to learn his name that Diriba Kuma should do for the people of Addis Abeba to do likewise? The answer may have to do with our democratic systems and traditions.

Since the nation operates under a parliamentary system of governance, Ethiopians spend far less time voting. Every five years there is a general election, and the winning party gets to select the prime minister, president, important cabinet ministers and officials. In other words, Diriba Kuma was never elected directly by the people, but by the party which is chosen by the people. There is nothing undemocratic about this, but it is hard to neglect the fact that it encourages lesser political participation.

In Dallas, the people, as part of the US and Texas, get to elect the president of the United States of America, the senators and congressmen that get to represent the state of Texas in the federal government, the governor of Texas, and the mayor of Dallas, all of them in separate ballots. Rawlings would have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars campaigning, going house to house addressing supporters and detractors alike. He would have run TV advertisements and distributed flyers – carried out all the nuts and bolts electioneering entails. Kuma, on the other hand, is selected to mayorship, thereby, giving the people of Addis Abeba far less reason to memorise his name.

Of course, changing the system itself is very hard. Doing so would mean carrying out a referendum and setting aside a transitional period. We also have to take into consideration that the parliamentary system, though not flawless, has its advantages, and should not be scraped away every time someone finds a glitch within it.

Instead, the government could encourage the tradition of political activism, easily doable by bolstering the power of the media, giving them more access to the lives of the candidates. Politicians in Ethiopia are usually seemingly detached. They live in palace-like homes provided by the government for their respective terms in office. They are driven around by chauffeurs in black four-wheel drives. And they almost never get photographed by journalists unless it is at public events. We know very little about their personal lives – they may be qualified, but are they human like us? Do they grapple with the everyday problems we average people do, like bad customer service? We do not know.

One of the most intriguing details of the French presidential election, surprisingly, was Macron’s wife. Twenty-four years his senior, they met when he was only fifteen, a student at the school where she was teaching. For the voters, Macron seemed like the hopeless romantic, unperturbed by age or looks, fighting for the heart and soul of those he loves, be it his wife or France.

What politicians need to do to endear the political system to the people is meet voters half way, ingratiate themselves, share some details about their personal lives and finances on the electorate’s home turf, which is social media or independent newspapers, instead of just state TV. A good model for such engagement is Tedros Adhanom, former foreign minister of Ethiopia, who through his Twitter and Facebook accounts, regularly kept in touch with users.

Several studies have shown that people are more likely to vote for the person they find familiar, a person they believe would make for a decent neighbour, as opposed to just a technocrat. This way they listen to policy more effortlessly, without being worn down by technicalities. They would go out of their way to put someone they like in or keep someone they do not like from office. Engagement of politicians with the public also makes the system seem more trustworthy. They would wait in long queues in the middle of the morning to vote and get their country moving in a certain direction. Before we know it, they may even start to like their country.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye is a writer at large whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling. He can be reached at

Published on May 27,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 891]



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