Democracy Fares Better Under Meritocracy

The horrendous memories of the costly but fruitless national election of 2005 do not go away easily from the Ethiopian national political scene. I wonder how the then political opposition managed to hide the weaknesses of its campaigns that successfully misled Addis Abeba’s voters in its favor.

The horrendous memories of the costly but fruitless national election of 2005 do not go away easily from the Ethiopian national political scene. I wonder how the then political opposition managed to hide the weaknesses of its campaigns that successfully misled Addis Abeba’s voters in its favor.

An athlete, for instance, might win a 100 meter race but could fail the doping test. She could, certainly, not claim to have won the race as the rules of the game were violated.

The case is similar with the Ethiopian political opposition. It cannot claim to have won the election in Addis Abeba as it has not respected the rules of the game that required it to avoid misleading campaigns.

The most popular democracy in theUnited States, particularly the presidential elections, would never allow a contender to appear with a misleading campaign nor can he make impractical promises. It is avoided not only for the integrity of politicians but for the strong institutions that do not allow it to take place.

For example, during presidential elections, two or three debates between the president elects of the largest political parties take place. Often, the live transmissions of these debates gain national attention before elections.

The electorate does not make up its mind without weighing the analysis made by various independent institutions, including the giant private media, following the debates. This is not to disrespect the electorate but to make a more rational judgment supported by expertise opinions of independent professionals whose skills it does not possess.

Otherwise, it will be driven away by emotion-triggering campaigns as we witnessed in the most competitive Ethiopian national election back in 2005.

By then, inEthiopia, the electorate did not have this assistance to enable it make a rational judgment. Undeniably, theUSelectorate is more intelligent than the Ethiopian one as it lives in a system that has strong institutions and a developed democratic culture, including the prosperity that democracy requires.

But the more intelligent one has a support to rightly appreciate the choices, as it demands expertise knowledge, before him, while the less intelligent did not have it. So, it does not take me by surprise to see the Ethiopian electorate being misled into make the wrong judgment.

The media is one of the most important institutions of democracy. Sometimes its role gives it status as a fourth branch of the government.

This institution could have helped the electorate to cast its votes more rationally by analysing the campaigns and exposing the weaknesses of unfounded promises. In 2005, this institution failed to contribute to its role, at a time when the nation needed it most. It happened so, although, it was supposed to live for the national interest.

The media was rather reporting on the campaigns of parties that were in the course of misleading the electorate.

Why did the media failed to deliver? Is it because it did not have the capacity or the willingness or because it was ignorant of its job?

Regardless, it has to take its share of the national blame for the undemocratic nature of the election.

What seems amasing is the fact that it still promotes the 2005 election as the very popular one. That is how, I think, the undemocratic election gained undeserved popularity.

This is a single example on how the failure of the proper functioning of a single institution, particularly the media, prevented the election from being a democratic one. This is why I persist on stressing the development of institutions.

It is not when we want, but when we can, thatEthiopiacan be a democracy. Every institution that our thought might visit fails to currently deliver democracy inEthiopia. The most challenging part of the problem, I think, is building the institutions that democracy needs for its proper functioning.

Aside from the institutional lacuna, the political culture in the nation is another factor to deny us of a consolidated democracy. The deep-seated intolerance to one’s own political views takes the blame for the failure of the media to contribute its share to democracy.

Political tolerance is critical to democracy and fundamental to the workings of parliaments and other legislative bodies. It involves accepting and respecting the basic rights of persons and groups whose viewpoints differ from one’s own.

These rights include the freedom to express ideas, including those that are unpopular. It also involves the ability to participate in political processes and to do so freely, regardless of sex, race, religion, ethnicity, or creed.

According to a survey undertaken in 2009 by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), which covered 23 nations, the masses of people are not tolerant of minority points of view and thus have the potential to favor a tyranny of the majority.

It is amazing to see a nation likeEthiopia, with an exemplary religious sphere known for its tolerance, being unable to tolerate political opinions. The political intolerance that lingers in our fair nation might trace the long history of dearth of differences in political view as its source. Yet, it is certain that intolerance to differing political views is the major factor yielding to a political system characterised by trivialism rather than meaningful issues.

But, remaining pessimistic indefinitely is impossible as there are some mentionable realities that may contribute a lot to the future of democracy inEthiopia. The progressEthiopiastepped into to widen the access for education is one worth mentioning.

The conventional wisdom, at least since the writings of John Dewey, an influential American philosopher, views high levels of educational attainment as a prerequisite for democracy. Education is seen to promote democracy both because it enables a culture of democracy to develop, and because it leads to greater prosperity, which is also thought to cause political development.

The most celebrated version of this argument is the modernisation theory, popularised by Seymour Martin Lipset, an influential American political sociologist, which emphasises the role of education as well as economic growth in promoting political development in general and democracy in particular. Lipset argues that Education presumably broadens human outlooks, enables them to understand the need for norms of tolerance, restrains them from adhering to extremist and monistic doctrines, and increases their capacity to make rational electoral choices.

“If we cannot say that a high level of education is a sufficient condition for democracy, the available evidence does suggest that it comes close to being a necessary condition.”

The differences in schooling are major factors explaining not only differences in democracy, but more generally differences in political institutions.

I believe that all of the more educated Ethiopians in the future will have a better capacity to build the institutions with a better qualified human resource. By then, even the electorate will improve its understanding of the political system which makes it a more rational adjudicator of political campaigns. The media too will strengthen as it will have a better staff and readership base, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

This enables it to look behind every political event and check it independently. Transparency and accountability will also be in place.

Last but not least, there will be more professional political choices that will address the real problems with genuine efforts. The political culture could be transformed towards tolerance and mutual understanding. Even rule of law, individual and public accountability, and transparency could be realised. Then, a democratic Ethiopia could be realised, though not inevitably.



By Tagel Getahun
Tagel Getahun is an advocate in law. He can be reached at

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