EDP do not wish to start from zero

Chane Kebede (PhD) is the president of the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP). Chane earned his first degree from Asmara University in mathematics, and his masters from Unity University in developmental economics. Furthermore, he also did his PhD in developmental studies at UNISA.

Following the general assembly of the party in 2013, Chane assumed the presidency of  the party, replacing the seasoned politician Mushe Semu, who took over the party leadership from another well-known political figure, Lidetu Ayalew.  Chane sat down with Neamin Ashenafi of The Reporter to discuss issues relating to the upcoming general election and the EDP’s general activities. The president spoke of the policy alternatives that his party will offer the voting public and other relevant issues. Excerpts:

The Reporter: In connection with the upcoming election, can you tell me something about the Ethiopian Democratic Party’s (EDP) overall preparations? How many candidates is the party fielding?  

Chane Kebede (PhD): We have been making huge preparations pursuant to the timetable set by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). Except for Gambella and Somali regions, we have fielded candidates in all regions of the country. They will be contesting seats in regional councils and parliament. We have set up a task force – one responsible for recruiting and having candidates registered, which will also follow up on grievances and another task force responsible for campaigning and debates. We have been having our candidates  to register until the last day of registration. The later task force has been preparing a manifesto and media usage program. We are waiting for the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority and NEBE to provide us with the media usage allotment. We also have a follow-up and evaluation committee headed by the president to oversee the entire process.

As a member of the Joint Council of Political Parties, what has EDP benefited from it? Do you think the party has achieved what it set out to do when joining the council?

The joint council has been active starting from the drafting of the electoral law to its enforcement. As a liberal democrat, the first thing we stand for is respect for the law. And in our view, the joint council has made its own contribution in seeing to it that the laws are respected. The goal is to have a peaceful, free and fair election that comes every five years. It also checks the activities of government organs that have a stake in the conduct of elections as well as democratic institutions. Whenever there are violations of this conduct and when it finds evidence that supports it, the council has sought solutions. The council acts as a law enforcement agency. In light of this, whenever violations occur such as the violation of the right to assembly and peaceful demonstration which are guaranteed in the constitution, the council works to have the gaps in the executive organs rectified. And we play our part in that process. It is also a platform for us to have face-to-face deliberations with the ruling party. So, we can say we have benefited from it.

Those outside the joint council label parties like EDP that are members of the joint council as phony political parties? What is your response to that?

I do not wish to comment on specific political parties. However, we believe such characterizations are contrary to the principle of peaceful political struggle. Such characterizations are mostly forwarded by political parties that claim to be advocates of liberal democracy. A party which advocates  liberal democracy stands for political tolerance and freedom. When you hear such characterizations, you would see these parties’ adoption of liberal democracy is only in a lip service. They simply comment on the activities of the joint council from the outside without properly appreciating what is being done. EDP is a seasoned political party with offices in various parts of the country. We strive for political tolerance. We are not new to such characterizations directed against the party. And we expect such attitudes will eventually vanish. At the moment, leftist attitudes still persist. They mostly come from the diaspora, specifically from former members of EPRP [Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Party] and others. They still influence political parties in the country. We believe the political parties at home are reflecting such an attitude - which is worrying because if these parties had, one day, the opportunity to run the country they would not be tolerant of other political parties. They forget the fact that these political parties [that are members of the joint council] are legally registered and recognized parties. We believe the path we have chosen is the right path to bring about change.

EDP often preaches about constructive engagement and gives recognition to achievements of the ruling party. How is that received by the ruling party? What is your evaluation of the response of the ruling party?

As I said earlier, leftist attitudes have not vanished from the ruling party itself. Unless such attitudes are completely shaken off, we do not see an opportunity of engagement being given by the ruling party. The leftist attitude still persists in many EPRDF [Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front] members. Our struggle will continue until such time that such attitudes vanish. And for the betterment of the peaceful struggle, we believe in pursuing the path of constructive engagement. Still the ruling party, in limited circumstances, welcomes our engagement and expresses its keenness for the promotion of the multiparty system. But as an opposition party with a different ideology from the ruling party, it is evident that they may undermine or reject some of the things we stand for.

In generic terms, what is the ideological similarity and difference between EDP and EPRDF? Also what does EDP offer differently and is there anything you share with the ruling party?

In terms of ideology, we do not have any similarity. We are a liberal democrat; EPRDF is a revolutionary democrat. Socialism is the basis for revolutionary democracy whereas for liberal democracy it is capitalism. So, we are on the opposite ends and the differences cannot be reconciled. And, as of late, the ruling party has adopted what it calls ‘developmental democracy’. So, the ruling party is not following a clear ideological path. Furthermore, liberal democracy does not prescribe to class politics; rather, it does to the right of an individual. But revolutionary democracy perpetuates class struggle. In light of the current system in place, the ruling party has created a class struggle of nations, nationalities and peoples. But we are of the view that respecting the individual right will address the group right. Hence, liberal democracy does not label a certain group as anti-class politics whereas the EPRDF regards, for example, imperialism, and by extension capitalism, as anti-class politics. So our differences stand out. And such differences will offer little opportunity to establish a coalition government. This is a shortcoming. In other countries, social democrats and liberal democrats can form a coalition government both as advocate liberal democracy. But that does not mean we will have a mission to dismantle the military, the police or the judiciary. We believe in strengthening the enforcement capability of such institutions and ensure that the justice system is free from political interference. 

From its ideological point of view, EPRDF says that liberal democracy can only flourish in the country once various institutions, including democratic ones, are built with an active involvement of the government in the socio-economic aspect of the country. In your view, can a liberal idea be a viable option now?

Liberal idea is set as a goal for EDP just as communism is the goal of socialism. There are steps we have to take before that by adopting some values of social democracy. At the moment, neo-liberalism is continuously evolving. It accepts a measured role of government backed by the law. That way the government can address socio-economic challenges. In our case, it does not mean we will immediately limit the role of government. We do not yet have a vibrant middle class yet. Until such a middle-class is created, we follow some values of social democracy. The government shall be the guardian of social and, to some extent, economic matters in a measured way. Added to that is full respect for individual right to develop, which will hasten the path to liberal democracy. So, liberal democracy is the goal which means it is a gradual process. Because you cannot immediately achieve liberal democracy in a country where 75 percent of the population still lives in poverty. This line of argument is also forwarded by the ruling party to make their case against liberal democrats. They reason that development should come first. But we believe development is an integral part of liberal democracy. But liberal democracy follows a different approach to developmental democracy and that way the country can prosper the same way others have succeeded. There are countries that succeeded following the developmental state ideology. But our objective reality is different from these countries in terms of social, economic and political factors. So the developmental thought should be founded on the principles of freedom and respect for human right.   

We have discussed above what fundamental differences separate EDP and the ruling party EPRDF. By the same token, what differentiates EDP from the rest of the opposition camp?

Generally, there are many opposition political parties with whom we share a number of similarities like our party ideology: liberalism. But, we also differ greatly from some of the parties in the opposition camp. We know that the opposition group has parties which are nationalist in nature and are also espousing liberal political thoughts. And if you go back to history, there you find actual instances where our party decided to join forces with such parties to work for a common political agenda. We believe that liberal political views fundamentally require greater political tolerance among different political views and opinions. We believe that a liberal system should not disregard the voice of even one individual. Instead, that individual should be respected and heard, while ultimately majority votes are the decisive factor. Nevertheless, we have observed that most of these parties  that claim to be guided by liberal values and follow a nationalist political approach are in fact not living up to the ideological stance they claim to subscribe to. For instance, we do not think the ruling party is an enemy;most of them tend to have a deep animosity for the party. We believe that EPRDF has to be respected as a ruling party. However, we believe that this party the (ruling party) is following a wrong political, economic and social path as a ruling party. We think, that what it has subscribed to as a solution for Ethiopia’s age-long problems is wrong. Yet again, not everything that the ruling party is doing is useless. We believe some of it is wrong and misguided, while some of it is quite good. Our approach is to criticize only the ones that are wrong and misguided. As far as the ethnic nationalist parties in the opposition camp are concerned, from an ideological point of view, we do not think they are that different from the ruling party – EPRDF. Of course, they may have slight differences in the approach they follow when analyzing the rights of nations and nationalities in Ethiopia. Apart from that, it is difficult to take that as a unique political ideology. We also believe that we do not have any common ground to work with ethic nationalist parties in the opposition camp. But, we do have better chance of working together with the liberal nationalist parties. So, through time,if these parties start to clear up their act and are ready to work, I see nothing that would stand in the way. Actually, if you see EDP now,it’s the union of four parties. We have created a merger with parties that fit our ideological view and political direction. This can happen with other parties as well if we share ideological views, and if they are willing to work for national consensus and believe in political tolerance.

Your party is known for pushing for national consensus in Ethiopia. To that effect, the party had a plan to organize a national conference aimed at building national consensus. Where is that plan now? What is this national consensus to begin with, and  what  do you mean when you speak of national consensus?

Yes you are right, we had a plan to organize a national conference on national consensus. The plan was stalled due to financial problems we encountered. So, we have decided that we should proceed with the plan after we have registered our candidates for the upcoming general election. However, we have not abandoned the plan. Although I cannot tell you the exact time and date of the conference, I can definitely tell you that we will be having it soon; once candidates’ registration is complete. What we are planning is to hold a one-day conference where we will have two papers presented, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, which will help to spur discussion on the subject of national consensus. In this conference, we are planning to bring together all stakeholders in the Ethiopian politics including the ruling party and some of the respected personalities in the country. We are hoping that this would be a forum where all political ideas would be entertained freely and without restriction. The conference is expected to come up with ideas which could be used to draft the national consensus agenda. Then this could serve as a bedrock for further discussion on issues identified as part of the national consensus agendas and maybe attain an actual consensus on these issues in some future time. At this moment, the ruling party is challenging us on one of our party programs: national reconciliation. As you know, national reconciliation is an integral part of EDP’s party program but the ruling party is of the view that there is no conflict in Ethiopia and that there is no need for reconciliation. So, we decided to soften this and start with national consensus and maybe later move to the reconciliation,because, when we talk of national reconciliation, we are aware that all stakeholders in Ethiopia have to come together to resolve their differences regarding their country. Meanwhile, what we aspire to by building a national consensus is that all stakeholders, their differences aside, would attain common understanding on some issue of national importance and work for the attainment of those goals. This would not require stakeholders to actually resolve their differences but just find common a ground where they can work for the attainment of the commonly agreed national agenda. Maybe the details of how we can achieve this is a job for scholars who are currently conducting their research work in anticipation of the conference.

What exactly do you mean when you say ‘national reconciliation’? As we all know, Ethiopia had a violent history especially during the past 50 years. But when one proposes a national reconciliation, one has to be clear which two or more groups need to reconcile with one another. So what are we reconciling for and who will?

When we speak of all stakeholder in this country called Ethiopia, we are speaking of those groups that are conducting peaceful and constitutional struggle for what they believe to be a better path for the country. We are also speaking of those who are either convinced that the problems in Ethiopia will be addressed only through violent means and some who have already started to push for change in that direction. Furthermore, we also have those who have chosen not to say anything about the fate of their nation. So, all these different interests are part of the national reconciliation process. These groups have to recognize that historically there are some groups that have been disadvantaged and those who are favored. So, unless we are willing to say “stop” and that “we need a clean slit form there on”, going forward, we will end up damaging ourselves by settling scores of the past. They should recognize that we need to have  lasting peace in Ethiopia and that we should not perpetuate violence and repression. The experience of  South Africa after the end of the apartheid era under the late Nelson Mandela is one successful instance to cite in this regard. So, our party believes that, unless we are willing to do that, there will be continued antagonism and animosity among Ethiopians for years to come.

Since we are approaching an election time, I want to ask you what EDP is preparing to offer the voter. What alternative policy, strategy or direction do you bring to the table?

What EDP want is not to bring about government change per say but bring about change in the whole system. So, to do that we first need to have the consent of the voting public. After that, we intend to approach reshaping the system in line with our liberal ideals but in a way that is participatory of the all interests and voices in the country. We wish to implement our liberal ideas and democratic values at par with the internationally accepted standards. So, when we do this shall not spend our time to eliminate opposition groups. For instance, if we were to be elected, we wish to see the current ruling party to continue working in the political space as a minor party while we function as a major party. As far as our economic and social policies are concerned, we will craft detail policies and strategies from the perspective of respect for individual rights and democratic values. And, we want to focus on the implementation of the laws and policies on the grassroots level. So, EDP’s approach is not to demolish all the institutions that are already in place. We do not intend to start from zero; rather we want to build on what is already there. What we want to change is to make sure that the institutions are free from politics and that professionals would do their proper job free from the interference of the politicians. At this time, the approach that the current government is following, for example to administer the civil service, is not free from the influence of politics. And that is why many scientifically proven tools to improve governance did not succeed to bear fruit. These tools actually have a proven track record of improving service delivery and good governance elsewhere in the world. But, they did not bring about the changes that we were assigned to bring because the institutions were not free from the interference of  politics.

So, are you saying, that should you take power, most of the existing institutions would continue to function?

Yes. As I told you at the beginning, the ruling party and EDP share the view that the institution that the party set up as government have no problem by themselves. These are institutions that were set up as per the international accepted standards. We do not intend to demolish these perfectly functional institutions and start afresh. But, what we differ on is the strategy to run these institutions. We believe these institutions should be led in a way that is insulated from the influence of the political party which is in power. Instead of assigning political appointees to lead these institutions, we prefer to assign professionals who fit the position. We are also convinced is that that behind the rampant of good governance and corruption issues that the government is currently struggling with. So, perhaps with the exception of high-ranking ministerial and leadership positions, which should be filled with politicians, we intend to staff the civil servant with nothing but pure professionals.

We have seen a number of well-known political personalities like Lidetu Ayalew, Abdurrahman Mohamed and Mushe Semu, who have served the party at the top leadership position, retiring to a life away from politics. Most of these personalities had wealth of experience in Ethiopia politics, but after stepping down from leadership position they did not stay with the party as members. Why is that? Can EDP afford to lose them?

As a party, EDP has strong internal party democracy where a difference of opinion is brought to the discussion table and whoever wins would take the leadership of the party. The outcome of such political discussions are always respected by our members and the party is always loyal to the opinion that managed to win in free and open political debate. As far as Lidetu Ayalew is concerned, he is one of the most recognized faces and names in Ethiopian politics and he is one of  the personalities who had helped the party to get to the position it is at the moment. Unfortunately, the party bylaws, allows one candidate to stand for election and assume leadership of the party at most  for two consecutive terms. He was elected and served at that position twice and finally he had to step down and continue as regular party member. Apart from that, he is a member of the national council and is still active in politics. As to others, what happened was that they reached point where they can continue their political career and pursue their personal lives at the same time. So, he decided to pass the baton to the next generation and leave. All of them left citing personal reasons; there is no hard feelings with the party. If you see the case with Mushe, it is about pursuing his social life and get to his longtime plans of going back to school. But still, he is assisting the party in certain areas when we need him by sharing his experiences with it.