Many that followed Ethiopia’s politics for the past six months would find the signature address by the President of the nation to the joint session of the two legislative bodies hardly inspiring. Despite the optimism and high hopes, President Mulatu Teshome’s (PhD) speech early last week was uneventful in its form and barely new in its content.
It is, however, unfair to personally blame him. The annual address to both houses is not something that comes from his office along Menelik II Avenue. It rather comes from Lorenzo Te`azaz Road up in Arat Kilo, outlining priorities and initiatives of the present government.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) administration, for all of its lofty ideals of a united and prosperous nation where social justice prevails, has not set forward any plans. This may not be time for Ethiopia’s version of the “New Deal”.
President Mulatu merely rehashed past stances, such as reforming the criminal justice system and promising to fix flaws by reigning in diminished law and order, as well as he lopsided balance of payments. He emphasised the administration’s resolve to amend controversial laws in areas including the media, fighting terrorism and regulating the charities industry. He pointed out the political commitment to speed up Ethiopia’s accession to the World Trade Organization.
With a change of administration but not of a regime, it would be unrealistic to expect significant departures from the past as the case was with the two other major changes of the past half a century. Both the feudal and Military-Marxist systems of governments were successively overthrown and replaced by something wholly new. In neither instance were the general outlines of the institutions and laws governing the nation considered salvageable by the successors.
That does not seem to be the case in 2018, a phenomenon to be supported wholeheartedly. These are times for reforms and not revolutions.
Nonetheless, there is an evident confusion over the nature and architecture of the state and the way governance has been practised by the ruling party over the past quarter century. It is refreshing to learn that this is an administration with the power to fundamentally change the state but has left enough room to maneuver on how and what the outcome would be. The constitution and institutions of the nation might outlive the EPRDF. This could be reinforced by the growing friction between the constituent parties of the ruling coalition, which have had democratic centralism as an operational principle. Such a system exists in many organisations of leftist backgroud, employed to assure that there is unity of purpose and action.
It is not an evil unto itself. But as the EPRDF grew hegemonic and its members swamped the bureaucracy, as well as local and federal governing structures, centralism became toxic. It ate away at the checks and balances enshrined in the constitution, weakened institutions and stole the diversity of ideas from parliament. Where the incumbent and its political allies hold a complete control of parliament, the culture of democratic centralism killed robust debate among legislators.
This system was effective in centralising economic planning as well as implementation. Bills passed in droves and the executive body was given an extraordinary degree of freedom in running the affairs of the nation with hardly any accountability. The expansionary fiscal policy went unchecked, with infrastructure spending swelling and the ever-growing amount of money in circulation stimulating the economy.
Much of this would not have been possible had parliamentarians stressed the growing levels of waste and inefficiency in infrastructural development and refused to vote through a bill until the executive got its acts in order. They could have as well protested that the nation’s debt and balance of payments are spiraling out of control, blocking the executive’s initiatives and slowing economic growth.
But had the nation’s state-centric growth received scrutiny from parliamentarians, it would have been healthier. Unfortunately, they had no cause for staging such an effort. There would not be any political reward in openly calling out or resisting the policies and indulgences of members of their party. It was a moment of complacency; but only until the divide between the different coalition members represented in government became too evident to ignore.
The tension between constituent parties of the EPRDF signals a parliament that will not be as subservient. There have been some precedents for this earlier this year as parliamentarians voted en masse, though unable to change the passing of the bills, against amending laws on driver’s licence requirements and reinstituting the now lifted state of emergency.
But the rift between the members of the ruling party, resulting from growing loyalty toward their partisan groups rather than the coalition’s political convictions, was never more evident than during the EPRDF’s 11th Congress held in Hawassa a week ago. The only significant point that the coalition was able to come together on was retaining its popular chairman, Abiy Ahmed, while the front got a new lease on life.
The EPRDF’s binding political conviction remains as confused as it had been before the Congress and after Abiy’s assumption of the premiership, with some leaning toward social democracy and others stressing that revolutionary democracy is just as relevant today as when it was first introduced. Other testy matters, such as unifying the coalition into a party and incorporating allied parties in the peripheral states as full members of the incumbent, did not materialise.
Hopefully, self assertiveness seen in the member parties can be exported to parliament. Representing a populace that has grown more demanding of its rights and informed by how much of an essential political arsenal public support can be, parliamentarians should begin to be more keen in practicing constituency-based politics.
This would be a crucial supplement to the Prime Minister’s promise to make the democratic institutions autonomous of the executive branch and improve checks and balances in government. It bodes perfectly well with his administration’s lack of a clear policy design. The executive, short of a defined vision and determined course, could very well be receptive to new ideas.
The legislative bodies, no longer bound by a rigid and repressive party culture, have room to assert their visions and resist policies they believe will negatively affect their respective constituencies. They can bring a diversity of ideas and dynamics to a state that has been short of alternatives on how the economy should be managed or what political systems should govern the nation.
But a parliament with a diversity of views and aspirations of its own could have its disadvantages; there could be deadlock. Necessary amendments could fail to pass since what is right for politics, or one’s constituency, may not have long-term economic or political benefits for the nation. Pluralism can be its own Achilles Heel.
Nonetheless, parliamentarians should show a unity of purpose when it comes to matters like holding the executive to account when it errs and putting their weight behind the need to make democratic institutions autonomous, which in turn determine how independent from the executive the parliament can be.
There will be cases when constituencies may not demand these or even disagree, but the constitutional order should not be an element that parliamentarians sacrifice to politics.
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