Opposition Parties Ought to Find their Footing

It has been said that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) cannot solely democratise Ethiopia, and neither can the EPRDF. Analysts have prescribed that “stakeholders” must play a part too. Stakeholders are understood to mean the public, civil societies, public figures and opposition parties.

The last group is perhaps the most important in this equation. The fact that there are no opposition parties in parliament is the tragedy of Ethiopia’s politics. While previous government systems had outright banned multi-party systems, the current one has weeded them out by creating an uneven political playing field.

As unfortunate as it is, a section of the public does not believe that the legal domestic opposition parties are representative of the people. It is considered that they have been allowed to stay in the game because they either do not pose a threat to the incumbents in office or are in the pockets of public officials in the upper echelons of power.

This has made parties such as Patriotic Ginbot 7 and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which had been listed as terrorist organizations until a recent lifting of the designation, seem like legitimate oppositions to rally behind.

The opening up of the political space then will have positive implications. It sobers up the national discourse and helps the public focus on parties’ – opposition or not – visions for the country.

Arguably, the EPRDF’s liberalisation of the political space is merely making the incumbent party more popular. It is being seen as a party with the clout to reform itself, the experience to handle the economic and political affairs of the nation, and a unique ability to unify a polarised society. Reality is proving itself stranger than fiction.

Even a reformed EPRDF is not enough though. As long as a single party has too much clout, no amount of good intentions can effectively check the responsible use of resources and mandates. If in the next general election, any one party attains an absolute majority in parliament, the chances of institutionalising power will grow dimmer.

Opposition parties should begin setting their agendas and proposing policy objectives that they believe will appeal to the Ethiopian public. There are already signs that betray that gears are moving in this direction, as well as obstacles that seem likely to obstruct their chances of entering parliament.

A perfect example here is perhaps Blue Party, which plans to run on a liberal platform. Recently, the Party announced its plan to begin negotiations with Patriotic Ginbot 7. The outcome they said can even be a merger of the duo. The Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) has shown similar willingness to create a coalition, though it is not evident with whom.

This is good, if not broad enough. It is apparent that the opposition in Ethiopia is too fractured to effectively resist an incumbent as deeply entrenched in the local and federal governments as the EPRDF. Opposition parties ought to consolidate, which requires compromising their ideals to reach agreements.

But the Blue Party-Ginbot 7 synergy is not broad enough. Both parties have a similar base. This helps them not fracture votes among voters that may go either way, but it is hard to say that it gets them any new ones.

This is all the more important given Blue Party’s announcement for a referendum on a national flag. They could not have set a less relevant agenda that matters to the economic well-being of citizens and the democratisation of Ethiopia. There may be a part of the public, mostly in urban towns, that finds this idea appealing. But it will barely register with people in rural towns that are starved for infrastructure, access to health and education and employment opportunities.

As long as parties are not able to see beyond their immediate electorates they cannot hope to secure a victory against an incumbent that is made up of four ethnic-based parties and allies with similar groups across Ethiopia’s regional states.

They also do not help the narrative move forward but stagnate it. As long as parties remain confined to towns and regional states whose residents nonetheless support them, and fail to reach across the aisle, extreme polarisation within society will never cease to exist. And if history is any teacher, it is difficult to build democracy in a society whose members interpret history disparately, lack assimilation between its religiously and ethnically diverse communities and where compromises between differing views is non-existent.

A democratic system of government can only be established if citizens are able to oppose on the basis of rationale, not emotion. If a great awakening is to be realised here, it should first come from the opposition parties.

By Christian Tesfaye (christian.tesfaye@addisfortune.net)
He is Fortune’s Op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling.

Published on Jul 21,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 951]



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