Just Play the Game

There should be no losers in a democracy, but during elections there are. Those people are the opposition. And in Ethiopia’s case, they are far worse off. The Democrats of the United States (US) may grumble that they do not have a majority in either the White House, the Senate or the Congress, but they would feel better if they saw the position Ethiopian opposition parties find themselves in. By comparison, even France’s Socialist Party seems like an overachiever.

Still, opposition parties have found a way to affect structural reforms, like to the electoral system. It could also be that the ruling party, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), are trying to be more amicable than usual.

If past procedures have not worked out, and in some cases, have even led to unrest, then why not try something new?

The negotiation between the ruling party and the opposition parties focuses on certain, rather obvious, talking points. The latter had agendas in mind that would pertain to, for instance, a constitutional amendment or border demarcation. These were no-go zones for the incumbent officeholders and thus vetoed.

Parties such as Semayawi left the negotiation. For the remaining, some of the agendas up for discussion were laws related to the media, anti-terrorism and human rights.

Still, the most crucial seemed to be the electoral reform. Currently, Ethiopia operates under the first-past-the-post system. It is the most straightforward form of voting to explain and work with. It is how the candidate or political party with the most votes wins.

But the system of voting is often criticised for bypassing altogether the parties that do not win. A party with a majority, whatever its comparable size to the overall voter density, receives all the seats of that particular district or state.

If this is the reason opposition parties think that the EPRDF has the most seats in Parliament, then it is a sad day for the country.

First-pass-the-post is practised in a slew of other countries, including some of the most prominent proponents of liberal democracy – the US and the United Kingdom (UK). These countries have an enviable human rights record, a free media (the best example of which is people openly making fun of their leaders) and a smooth transfer of power. If Ethiopia has a problem, then it does not lie in the type of electoral system the nation follows.

It is hard to deny that both Western countries have the kind of electoral system which has not allowed new parties to take root. In the US, the legislative, executive or judiciary have been relayed between the Republicans and the Democrats for at least 100 years. For the British, the resulting government has either been the Tories (Conservatives) or the Labour Party for the last half of a century (the Liberal Democrats were able to reach a coalition in the 2010 general election).

Still, what is evident in the case of both countries is that one party is not preternaturally dominant. It is hard to find a party, in countries where a multiple of them are allowed to exist legally, like in Ethiopia, where 90pc of the legislative body is controlled by a single one.

At the negotiation, the oppositions have asked the EPRDF for details on the proposed mixed electoral system. It is the type of voting system where both the first-past-the-post and the proportional representation would be incorporated. Indeed, the scheme is murky.

Other parties prefer proportional representation. It is the type of voting system where every party gets an equivalent value of the seats it has won in local councils or federal parliament.

But one wonders, would this give power to institutions, bring about good governance and restore faith in the democratic system?

More than anything else, what opposition parties lack is originality. Ethiopia has never been one for a bad constitution. Ideally, it can accommodate multiple parties well. The dilemma lies in practising what everyone seems to be preaching lately. If the electoral system was what is lacking in the country both Germany and the UK would not have a smooth transfer of power. If opposition parties are unable to hold public office, so that they represent more views and ideas, then a different electoral system is far from the anecdote.

It is true that a negotiation with the government is essential, but it is also high time they stop expecting solutions from the state. They need to be creative; they need to understand that there are more means of getting the government’s ear, which is through the people.

Message is the key, and the method of processing the topic and channelling it needs to be worked on. In the 21st century, where there are more means of gaining an audience and relaying one’s point across, nothing could work more thoroughly. Their agenda need not be emotional, but instead reasonable. If they oppose the current federal structure, then they have to explain what it is they want to see it replaced with. If they believe Ethiopia should join free trade agreements (FTA), they should show what they plan to do about the constant and growing flow of imports.

The saying – do not hate the player, hate the game – does not apply here. What is flawed is not the game or even just the leading player, but the players as a whole.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye (christian.tesfaye@addisfortune.net) is Fortune's Op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling.

Published on Oct 14,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 911]



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