The art of campaigning

Kassahun Berhanu (PhD) is a political scientist and one of the long-serving academics at the Addis Ababa University department of Political Science and International Relations (PSIR). Kassahun is also a much-published researcher on Ethiopian politics. His areas of publications include political culture, the relationship between the opposition themselves and their approach toward the ruling party, and policy analysis in Ethiopia. Solomon Goshu of The Reporter caught up with him and discussed the stands of Ethiopian political parties on election campaigns. Excerpts:

The Reporter: What do you think would be the role of political campaigning in the Ethiopian context?

Kassahun Berhanu (PhD): A multiparty system in essence should be a political platform that allows open political campaigning and debate because political campaigning is something that parties have to do openly. It is not a kind of political struggle that was conducted in Ethiopia in the past. If you look at the opposition political parties in Ethiopia in the past such as the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (Meison), their struggle was characterized by underground movements. Political campaigning is conducted in such away that parties would openly lobby the public that their political program is better than that of others in ensuring the collective interest of the people and protecting the security of the nation. As you can understand, parties do have the platform to introduce their political program all time and recruit new member for the party. However, political campaigning provides a special occasion on which parties can avail the details of their political programs to the voting public. This is usually done around election time. So, when we talk about election campaign, there are few things that need to be fulfilled for parties to successfully promote their party programs among the public. One is finance; fruitful political campaigning requires ample financial resources. The other is a strong security and a situation for parties to move freely among the public and promote their party programs. And also, the issue of access to the media is another important thing. When we say access to the media we are referring to both public and private media outlets in the country. As far as the public media is concerned, it is a media outlet that belongs to the public but administered by the government. This means that parties and not only the party in power should have free access to public media outlets. When we talk of access to the public media, what we are referring to is an equitable if not an equal share of the public media slot; and to do that, there are various formulas that are applicable. On the other hand, they also need to get access to the private media via various means such as by paying for the media slot themselves or by acquiring sponsorships. Apart from the media, there are other political campaigning instruments such posters, billboards and person-to-person campaigning. They can mobilize a large number of party supporters like youth wings to do their bidding around election time. So, the whole point is to get as much vote as possible to win the election. In Ethiopia, I think the 2005 general election is one that can be said to be exemplary in terms of space for open political campaigning. The violence that unraveled itself afterwards aside, the space for political campaigning in 2005 election was one of the best in the country’s history.

For example, if we look at election campaigns in other parts of the world, we see special campaign slogs, campaign strategies and the practice of picking special agenda topics to capitalize on during the campaign time. But, we don’t see that in Ethiopia, or do we?

Yes. The experience of other countries is such that political parties would actually hire a professional campaign strategist to guide the party through the election process. These professionals are not even usually party members. They are hired just to run the party election campaign and decide what kind of posters, logos, slogans and the like should be used to appeal better to the voting public. Well, understandably, what we see in Ethiopia is a bit crude in this sense. That form of organized political campaigning seems to be lacking in our political scene. At this level, what we see is that, both the ruling party and the opposition forces would tell the public what they intend to do if they were elected and underline how their opponent is an inferior choice for the country’s politics. But, we don’t see that sort of structured debate and election campaigning in Ethiopia. However, one has to understand that that is not an easy task. In a mature democracy, parties running in election, including those in power, have to do a massive fund-raising job to cover their expense for their political campaigns because it requires an immense financial resources to effectively reach each and every voter. This, understandably, is absent in Ethiopia because the multiparty system itself is a recent phenomenon. If you look at that the ruling party the clear line of demarcation that should exist between public resources and the party is blurred. On the other hand, if you see opposition parties their capacity to mobilize public support using various campaign instruments is generally weak. In terms of financial resources the ruling party appears to be in a much better position.

This brings us to another point. If you look at the mature democracies, the chances of winning an election is highly correlated to the effectiveness of the political campaign they conduct. When we come to Ethiopia, how do you evaluate the actual effect of election campaigns on the outcome of elections?

Well, I would say that the effect is not that strong in our country. I think it is about the nature of the political debate itself. For example, what we hear in Ethiopia is debates like ‘we will ensure the respect of rights better than the ruling party,’ or promises like ‘we will make sure the public benefit from the development’ and the like. These are very subjective arguments and very general. But, elsewhere political debates are very topical and are targeting a particular section of the society. They address sections of society like the unemployed, the youth or women and others. Such debates actually allow for an in-depth analysis of the existing policies and the quality of the alternatives that are presented. In Ethiopia, you don’t see such kind of a sound policy analysis; at best they are too general. From the side of the ruling party as well, the campaign includes things that it had achieved as a Government. This is not the right way of campaigning because that is what it has to do as government, whether it is a party or not; or whether it has the right ideology or not. The opposition does not even have the mandate to do all those things; they do not collect taxes or have the power to implement infrastructure projects the ruling party uses for campaigning. We see the use of state functions for political campaigning from the ruling party side. In Ethiopia, we see state and the party being blended together; there needs to be a distinction.

The problem with the nature of the agenda topics aside, do you even think they address the issues that are pertinent at the particular time of campaigning? Do they evolve appropriately across time?

I think the agenda topics are becoming less and less interesting across time. For instance, I have seen one election campaign where a representative of the particular party told the public to vote for his party to actually hear what his party had to offer. He said he will not divulge the party policy options before he was elected to power. So, this kind of thing is just the usual rhetoric in the country’s politics. We do not see well-articulated political positions being reflected in election campaigns. It is easy to say the ruling party is bad but it is another thing to actually show how it is not the right party for the country. Such claims have to come out well articulated, blended with the experience of the public itself. In fact, we see these days that the opposition parties are having issues to stay cohesive. We hear a lot of controversies among the opposition these days. The experience in the past shows us that, when an election day is fast approaching, things become more heightened; more extreme. We have seen in the past that campaigns become more focused on certain groups and certain parts of society disseminating hatred and antagonism. Such campaigns usually target a section of the public.

Some commentators are of the opinion that the nature of political debate in Ethiopia is so much concentrated on grand issues like the constitution or the federalist system and the like that it loses sight of the important issues on the ground. These issues are being raised for the past twenty-four years. What do you say to that?

To begin with, I don’t think the constitution is something that cannot be criticized. I think it can. Of course, it cannot be all bad; so it could be criticized boldly. But, yes, I don’t see that sort of articulated arguments in our country; most of them are recycling of the old issues. We are yet to see what the debate in the upcoming election would look like. Whether it would be the repeat of the former election periods or a different one, we are yet to see.

How far do you think informed academic researches and actual problems in the various constituencies influence the agenda the political parties raise? Do you think the agenda is shaped by research and feedback from the non-political actors?

I don’t think they use research and feedback as an input to shape their political agenda. And in my view, that is why the nature of the political agendas themselves doesn’t seem to be evolving across time. Generally, I have to admit that I don’t see these things advancing and changing over time.The intense accusations and counter-accusations that go on around election campaigns do not leave them  (the parties) enough time to actually mobilize the public based on a measured political agenda.

Although officially an election campaign has not yet started (at the time of the interview), can we attribute the less visibility of the political parties to the public at this time to lack of confidence in political campaigning to win votes?

Well, I think it is both the attitude of the ruling party towards the opposition in general and their own internal weaknesses. I believe it is the mixture of both factors that is influencing the behavior of opposition parties in terms of making their political program more visible to the voter public. Although we cannot say that the ruling party has held a central policy of stifling the oppositions, we can observe traits of such behavior at lower levels of the party structure. For example, lower-level government executives, who belong to the ruling party, could think that they have to make things harder for the opposition to protect their party. Some of them might be of the view that their livelihood is directly linked to the existence of the ruling party at the helm of government power in Ethiopia. This could have a serious effect. However, we should also disregard the parties’ internal weaknesses as well. Their own internal strife and division would limit their capacity to reach the voting public with a sound political agenda and a policy alternative.

All things considered, how do you evaluate Ethiopia’s multi-party system: the culture of election and the behavior of the state?

One thing that is visible is that many of these opposition politicians are not that active before election time. They usually go out of their shells around elections. Most of them become more visible around election time either challenging the ruling party or dealing with problems of their own. Then they would disappear until another election time. This kind of behavior has been observed in the past two or three election and is becoming quite a trend with the opposition. Regarding the multiparty system, in academic sense, number by itself does not make the system more democratic. One party alone can still be democratic and participatory. But, if you ask me if EPRDF is ready for a mature multi-party system, I have to say I do not think so. Of course, there are a number of parties in Ethiopia that are legally registered and recognized to function as political parties. But I think that a multi-party system requires a lot more than that. There needs to exist a real enabling political environment. And my personal observation is that the ruling party is not that committed to make the multiparty system work in Ethiopia.

Although the ruling party still says that it wants a functioning multi-party system in Ethiopia, it has also recognized the emergence of a dominant party multi-party system in the country. How do you see that?

Yes, there are well-functioning dominant party democracies around the world where one party had ruled for over 50 or 60 years. You can take the example of Social Democratic Party of Sweden and another one in Japan. They have stayed in power for a very long time; and each time they have extended their tenure they have done so through democratic election. In terms of the democratic nature of these systems there is little or no doubt. These are mature dominant party democracies of the world. However, winning successive elections for many years alone does not make a dominant party a democracy. How the system works matters a lot. It matters if there is free and fair periodical elections; there needs a well-functioning system of checks and balances between the law-making body and executive; there also needs to be a free and independent justice system. So, if these things are there, and if the system enjoys acceptance of the public, one party can rule even for 1000 years and it cannot be called a dictatorship. If you ask me that is the case in Ethiopia, I still say I do not think so. For one, in Ethiopia, the court system does not have the right to interpret the constitution of the land. The exclusive right to interpret the constitution belongs to the House of Federations which is largely made up of politicians who belong to the ruling party, EPRDF. First one can question the capacity there to give the right interpretation of the biggest law of the land. On the other hand, the fact that most of members belong to the party that is in power casts doubt on the independence of the interpretation of this body. In fact, there is the Constitutional Inquiry Council which is made up of legal professionals. But, the big question is if anyone can actually go to court and defeat the ruling party on such matters. In my view, I doubt if  it will be defeated in simple civil suit cases. I still doubt  the court system itself in terms of integrity, honesty and capacity. Regarding the National Board of Election, if it is not to the level the oppositions are accusing it, I have doubts regarding its independence and neutrality. In political party discipline, the term-dominant party and dominating party have big differences. So, when we say a dominant party, we are talking about a party  that has laid down a system which has acceptance among the public and which is not only ruling by the laws and institutions of the land but also is governed by them.

How much of this do you think is influenced by the political ideology of the ruling party that claims to be a revolutionary democracy and the developmental state model is implementing it?

Personally, I think that most of the ideology and state models have got nothing to do with the actual system the party is implementing on the ground. Regarding developmental state model, I don’t think it is that bad for a country like Ethiopia. It is a model where the states, role in moving forward development is bigger as opposed to the mainstream neoliberal conception of market fundamentalism. However, there are some basic requirements to fulfill to actually be called a developmental state. The first and most important is that government has to be free of any interests even from that of the supposedly public interest. This is to say that the executive should be strong enough to withstand any interest even that of the public which voted for them while conducting their business. The second is the rule of law. The law has to see all parties equally and with no discrimination. The third one is corruption. Corruption is a big threat to developmental states. Yes, in Ethiopia we are seeing movements against corruption once in a while. We even witness some strong measures being taken against top and middle-level government officials. But, we have to ask if these measures are evenhanded. Aren’t there other officials who should be dealt in with the same manner? Furthermore, there is the question of how free the court system is: how free the lawmaking body is. Do we often see top officials being punished by the court system out of the interest of the ruling party? This is also a big question. Another big requirement is a politically insulated civil service. The civil service should function irrespective of the political party in power. Of course, the ruling party would have its own policy and strategies; and it can implement it via civil services without having to put in place a new civil servant that would support its policies. I think, in this respect, we have a long way to go.