Redefining democracy

Getachew Reda is special assistant to the Prime Minister who formerly served as director of Public Diplomacy and Communications at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the fifth general elections, Getachew secured a seat in parliament after contesting in Alamata constituency in Tigray Region under the ticket of Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), one of the founding members of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Results from the latest election also saw the ruling party on course to a sweeping victory. Mikias Sebsibe of The Reporter sat down with Getachew, who will join parliament for the first time, to talk about issues with regards to the results from the latest election and a broader view of the political space and democratization in the country, opposition politics and mechanisms of hearing the voices of people unrepresented within legislature. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Provincial results of the 5th general elections indicate that EPRDF is very well on course for a sweeping victory for seats in parliament and regional councils. It is 100 percent of the seats from results that are, so far, in. In a democratic system, this is an extreme rarity. Why do you think is the reason for such a sweeping victory?

Getachew Reda: As you know parties when they field candidates for an election, they field candidates with the assumption that they will win all the seats. That in many cases doesn’t happen simply doesn’t make the fact that their fielding candidates to win 100 percent of the seats any less acceptable. When EPRDF entered the election, it fielded 501 candidates for 501 seats. In our system, you are expected to fight for every seat. And fight it did for every seat. So, if indeed all the seats have gone to EPRDF, which I am not sure is the case at this point in time, then it simply means that EPRDF has been successful in mobilizing whatever support is necessary to win all the seats. What counts as democratic and undemocratic in any given democratic process is not whether you win this many seats or that many seats. It is rather whether you have put in place all the mechanisms that will ensure the process is free and fair. At the end of the day, the decision is going to be left for the people. For the EPRDF, the question is not whether it has won 100 percent or not, the question is whether it has done everything within its power to convince the electorate its policies are the ones which will most certainly transform the country. And I think people have been speaking loud and clear that for a large part they consider EPRDF the only viable alternative to continue the development process that have been set in motion in this country.

But others blame the political environment in the country where the independence of democratic institutions is questioned. On top of that the social control, through what is known as 1 le 5, has made it practically difficult for the opposition to compete? What do you say to that?

For one thing, there is nothing new about these allegations. But apart from responding to allegations, I think it would behoove us to set the record straight on what it means to work towards democratic disposition in this country and do everything within the power of the nation to allow for the fullest possible exercise of political freedom by the people. The most important issue here is whether opposition parties feel, or at least claim, that there is a broad political space in this country. It will be foolhardy to expect opposition groups who are in the business of opposing the status quo to give a very positive report card towards the incumbent. But the reality, when we talk about the fullest participation of the public in all aspects of economic, political and social life, we are talking about an organized participation of the society. Individual participation itself is not going to achieve any meaningful result. The reason why you have this whole idea of parties coming into the picture as mechanisms of articulating interests of the public makes sense only if we think in terms of organized participation of the public. So, if the government, in its effort to achieve its development goals, insists on the fullest possible participation of the public in all the development endeavors, it is simply because development cannot be achieved without the fullest possible participation of the public. And the fullest possible participation of the public can only be meaningfully geared towards achieving development only if that participation is organized. The form that organization would take will change from place to place. You will have a different kind of organizational setup in the US. For example, parties will have ‘get out the vote’ campaigns. These are literally house to house campaigns where cadres of any given political party go knocking at the doors of would-be electorates trying to get them to see their version of the story and cast their votes in favor of one party or another. Other than ‘get out the vote’ campaigns which come every four years in the US, we have a system where people are organized in the most functional units possible. It could be five people, or seven or nine people, there is nothing dogmatic about the arrangement itself because what counts is whether that group is the most functional unit in any given assignment or development practice. What we have is an organizational structure which is not, after all, meant for election purposes but which is meant for mobilizing the resources of the public for development efforts. If, by some stroke of luck, such organizational structure resulted in sensitizing people in such a political orientation that seems to favor one political party or another, that is going to be incidental to the organization itself, not the very objective of the organization in the first place. At the end of the day, we need an organization to ensure meaningful, fullest possible participation of the public. And that organizational structure would take different forms. For example, even within EPRDF administered regions in Ethiopia where there are more of pastoralist practices and less of farming practice, the organizational structures are going to be naturally different. So, there is nothing dogmatic or sinister about this organizational structure. Having said that, whether or not the political space is broad enough to allow for full exercise of political freedom is not a function of whether the ruling party is willing to reason that. It is rather a function of how people take their own rights seriously. And we have the most political society in the world, I can say. None of the peasants’ life in this country is decided upon without the participation of the peasants one way or another. So, in a society where most, if not all, decisions are done on the basis of the participation of the public, to say that the people are cowed into accepting the policy choices of the ruling party simply because they happen to identify themselves with most of the policy choices of the ruling party would be unfair. Political participation is not a function of whether the ruling party is willing to let go of its real or perceived control over situations in this country. It is rather a function of whether people are serious about their rights. And we have every reason to believe that people in this country have been very serious about owning their political processes and no political party, whether the ruling or opposition, have the right or the capacity to dictate terms.

You have talked about having the best possible organizational structure. That is one of the areas where the government is accused of blurring the line between the affairs of a party and government especially in election year.

There will always be allegations. The ruling party has been accused of everything under the heaven including drawing policies and launching projects, which obviously are in the best interest of the nation, simply to win support among the electorate. There is no substance to such allegations. To start with, a ruling party in the business of governing is expected to put in place policies and implement projects that are meant to change the people. And if in the process peoples’ attitude towards the party changes and that reflects itself their decisions during election time, you can only complain as much. The point is not whether people take the overtures of the party as something they can easily identify with. Because at the end of the day it remains for the people to decide which party to take seriously and which party not to take seriously. Coming back to the question whether the line between party and government is been blurred; it all depends on your vantage point. Those opposition parties who fancy having the largest following possible, who were not able to field candidates and observers to all the polling stations, would still say that the fact that the incumbent has had the benefit of having been around for thirty something years would give it a better advantage than them. That is quite normal. The issue is whether they have been denied the opportunity go to the public, make their case and try to recruit as many members as possible. These people are not in the business of recruiting members, they are not in the business of doing any sensible party politics between the end of election cycle and the beginning of another. If you have fair weather opposition politicians complaining about a narrowing political space especially what they think is a blurring line between party and government, not because there is a blurring line but rather because they would have liked to use the resources of the government in their favor other than working hard on setting up a modicum of organizational structure which would give them a much better competitive edge. There is no reason, whatsoever, for the ruling party should use government structures because the ruling party has a membership of millions of Ethiopians. Development activities are undertaken in this country, although the ruling party is responsible for drawing up the policies, the implementation is done through the government structure. So, if this functional units, such as 1 le 5 or whatever you like to call them, are used to ensure the fullest participation of the public in development endeavors and if in doing so the people who are involved in this processes somehow find it in their heart to take the ruling party in a better light than other opposition parties, not because the ruling party is coercing them so but rather because it is the ruling party which is achieving results it is tough luck for the opposition. The ruling party does not have any reason, whatsoever, to use these structures to win elections because elections are only won on the basis of your track records or on the strength of the promise you make. In this case the opposition are missing in action because they have no track records nor have they any meaningful package by way of promise that can entice people into voting for them. So they only have themselves to blame.

You have talked about participation of the public in a broader sense, but specifically talking about political parties, we often hear and witness the right to peaceful demonstrations and assembly being restricted.

The right to peaceful demonstration and assembly are constitutionally guaranteed rights. No government or party has a right to deny or grant the right to hold demonstrations. But any self-respecting government or society would impose restrictions not on the right itself but on the time, place and manner of demonstrations. This is a standard practice everywhere. You have some opposition parties who would make this ridiculous claim that the reason why they are not allowed to demonstrate in one place or another is testament to the ruling party’s unwillingness to allow any breathing space for the opposition. Some even go to the extent that the reason why we have huge construction activities around Mesqel Sqare was meant to disrupt most of their planned demonstrations in that area. This is ridiculous. The most important issue here is whether the so-called restrictions on demonstrations were meant to address this time, place and manner issues which are quite normal even in advanced democracies. As far as I know demonstrations have been almost a common practice in this country for the last twenty something years. Demonstrations should not always be led by opposition parties. There are also demonstrations led by sympathizers of the ruling party, religious groups, all kinds of social groups and civil society organizations. These rights to demonstration and freedom of assembly cannot be and is not restricted by the government. Sometimes, some of the opposition parties deliberately sabotage their own planned demonstration by demanding to hold demonstrations where it is least expected and unacceptable. Unacceptable not on the grounds of whether it is in the best interest of the ruling party but whether it meets the time, place and manner requirements.

The opposition is characterized as weak and fragmented. And it appears the EPRDF also shares this sweeping characterization of opposition parties although there are over 70 legally registered political parties. Doesn’t the government share some of the blame for the state of opposition parties in the country?

If there is a sweeping characterization of the opposition, I would say it is going to be a mistake. Some officials of the ruling party, myself included, would sometimes use languages that would seem to, unintentionally, be categorical about all opposition parties. But this is not the position of the party. EPRDF believes, especially in this fifth general elections, that there were numerous parties which played their constitutional role in a very sensible manner. And the Prime Minister, chairman of the party of course, went out in public and expressed his gratitude and thanks to all those who have conducted themselves in public and private in a manner that is consistent with the dictates of democratic constitutionalism. That is one thing. But to say that the parties are fragmented is to state the obvious. I do not know why the government should be blamed for the fragmented state of the parties. As you know in our system every seat is going to be won on the first-past-the-post basis. Under normal circumstance, only when you have a very organized presence and participation that you stand a better chance of winning. If opposition parties who, at times ridiculously, claim to have the capacity to lead a nation, failed to figure out why a fragmented participation is going to cost them, if they failed to figure out how to beat this odd, then I don’t think the government should be blamed for this. Sometimes it is as if the government is expected to conduct some kind of organized campaign to rig elections in favor of the opposition. But that is not the kind of practice that would endear either the ruling party or whoever wins as a result of that to the rest of the world or the Ethiopian people. So, the most important issue is for the opposition party to do their homework and bring themselves together to see that there is little in the way of novel policy alternatives that they offer. And who knows they could win something. Otherwise, this blame game will continue and this Sisyphean task of changing a party which is delivering results without so much as any policy alternative will never yield any result. Most of the opposition parties will have themselves to blame. Some of them may have the best of intentions, conduct themselves legally both in private and in public, but still they have a long way to go in creating a viable party structure that addresses the concerns of most of the public. Otherwise, there is nothing the government, or the ruling party, have done to earn the kind of blame they are being given for the fragmentation of the parties.

One of the blames thrown against the government is the relatively recently enacted laws, such as the CSO which severely curtailed advocacy works and made it difficult to garner public support for political parties and limited political consciousness and awakening in the society.

I will be saying this at the risk of insulting peoples’ intelligence. For one thing, the CSO law limits the participation of foreign NGOs in political activities in this country. If you have a political party which believes that its political activity is affected negatively as a result of foreign NGOs being prevented from conducting political activities, then the party is telling you that it cannot breathe on its own. And of course this is what the government has been saying all along. Most political parties in this country cannot breath on their own. So, they have to depend on the infusion of money from halfway across the world to stay viable. I do not see how the national endowment for democracy from halfway across the Atlantic would create a vibrant political environment in the rural and urban Ethiopia to create a conducive atmosphere for, say, one of those rejectionist political parties to prevail over the ruling party. On a second level, to say that the political awakening of the public cannot be achieved without the participation of foreign funded CSOs is to underestimate the capacity of the public to undertake democratic responsibilities. Democracy in this country can only be nurtured and enhanced with the fullest possible participation of the people. And nobody in this country, not even the ruling party which has probably the broadest participation of the public, can claim to know better than the people about what is in their best interest or not. The CSO law has proven its caliber. It has made it impossible for people who would want to remote control the democratic process in this country to say yes and no to elected governments. It has made it impossible for political parties which can only server as Trojan horses for these groups to wreak havoc in this country. To that extent it has achieved its purpose.

But since the CSO law there are not many local NGOs working on advocacy works either.

By the way, why would people in Ancheqorer, or people in Alaba, or people in Tigray need some CSO to stick out for their rights? Why would people in Semien Shewa, or people in north Gondar, or people in Omorate, need civil society organizations such as NGOs to stick out for their rights? Because, these people have been sticking out for their own rights even when they were least successful for decades on end. And it is these people who have been owners of their own institutions. It is only with this in view that any effort to create a viable democratic culture in this country can succeed. Otherwise to say that it is only NGOs, through their advocacy works within the public, who can change political culture in the country, is to overstate the importance or significance of CSOs, especially NGOs. But we have a slightly different definition of civil society organizations. Mass-based organizations, for example, which have a very large membership drive and depend, largely, on the contribution of their members such as Teachers’ Associations, Women’s Associations or Diabetic Patients’ Associations have a sense of transparency and accountability that goes with democracy. Otherwise, very insular NGOs, who have never changed leadership for thirty something years, who are only in the business of sustaining poverty in a given locality, would have you believe that they should be custodians of democracy. This is plain wrong. There is no country in the world that has outsourced the development of its democratic process to NGOs. And if any, they must definitely have failed.

But the EPRDF repeatedly claims that democracy, as is development, an existential issue. Most are not convinced about the government’s conviction for democracy. While there are clear indicators to measure economic development, how does the government assess the process of democratization? What are the indicators of democratic progress?

The indicators are, more or less, the same indicators we have for our commitment to development. If there are people who say that development in this country can be achieved through dictatorial means, if there are people who are naïve enough to believe that you can dispense with democracy for a while and work on development and later adopt democracy, then they do not know this country. The reason why this country cannot do away without democracy or development is simple. Without putting in place a political arrangement that can fully accommodate the diversity of this country, it could be ethnic, religious, linguistic, demographic or whatever diversity there is; if we fail to progressively continue to build a system that addresses this diversity, then we are doomed. No amount of well-written development policies can prove their mettle in this country unless we have a political space that allows for full participation of the public, not just in the implementation of policies but also in the formulation and monitoring of policies. And this is what is happening here and there. Because we start from a culture that has been anything but democratic, we have setbacks and problems here and there. We have people who have the propensity to deal with every issue in a very undemocratic manner. So this system has its own setbacks, difficulties and challenges. Most of the success in the economic arena we have achieved the last fifteen years owes very much to the fact that our people have full participation in the formulation, implementation and monitoring of policies. If this is not democracy, nothing is. If participating in the formulation of a policy that is going to affect your life for better or worse is not democracy, nothing is. Do we have setbacks and challenges here and there? Yes. Even culturally speaking, this is a society which still thinks of women and children as subsidiary components to a household – a very patriarchal society. So, we have a long way to go even before we can address those cultural barriers that stand in the way of the development of democracy. But as far as our trend and commitment to democracy goes, I think the indicators of our commitment to democracy are, more or less, the same indicators of our commitment to democracy.

You say they are more or less similar but I asked that question because there is a strong criticism that democracy in this country has regressed especially since 2005 while the country registered a double-digit growth. Would you say our understanding of the notion of democracy is a little bit miscued?

If you are addicted to perusing the western media on a daily basis, you are likely to develop a language which is akin to denying any popular exercise of democracy as a circus. So the election which we held two weeks ago, which saw a turnout of about 90 percent – something in the order of 33 million people who calmly, peacefully, without so much as fear cast their votes – is a circus according to most western pundits. Why? Because there was no hoopla, noise, bloodshed, vote rigging allegation and counter allegations involved. If what we mean by democracy is what we mean by some professional left in Washington or London thinks is democracy, not what the people in this country think is democracy, then we are entitled to our own opinion. Obviously there are things we feel strongly about. We will agree to disagree. Democracy in this country is not about pleasing some fancy organization ostensibly fighting for some lofty ideals in London but whose idea of democracy is installing a puppet led by people who have nothing other than repeating what these people tell them as their manifesto. The question is, if democracy has regressed in this country. What has regressed is the notion of democracy that these commentators in the west and self-styled human rights organizations in the west and their busboys here think about. People now have increasingly become owners of the democratic process in this country. To that extent, the whole notion of democracy as perceived by some in the west has been regressing. And that is a more than welcome news for Ethiopia and Ethiopians.

Let us go back to the results from the fifth general elections. In popular votes, if we take for example in Addis Ababa nearly 40 percent of the electorate have not voted for the EPRDF, yet that result will not be reflected in the legislature. For that reason, some lay the blame on the first-past-the-post electoral system and call for constitutional amendment to proportional election system or a hybrid system. What do you say to that?

To begin with, there is nothing inherently democratic or undemocratic about a system. The first-past-the-post system is considered to be one of the most democratic and inclusive electoral systems in the world. The British use it. Especially in a diverse society such as ours, the only chance very small communities would have themselves represented, say in the legislature, is if this system is fully operational. But as we have witnessed in the last five elections, the fact that there are fragmented opposition parties also means that there is significant amount of popular votes that is going to be left unrepresented in the legislature. The solutions is, for one thing opposition groups should come to their senses and see for the first time in their lives that they have to find a common ground to rally behind rather than saying all kinds of stupid things against the ruling party. They have to run for something, not against something. Secondly, the government has been undertaking plans to study whether there needs to be a change. Not so much a sea change in the electoral system or whether we can introduce all kinds of tweaks here and there. There is no reason why that study, which was undertaken some three years back, would not be further enhanced and see if something meaningful comes out of such a study. The government is committed to strengthening and enhancing democracy. And it will be more than willing to do everything it takes to enhance democracy short of rigging elections in favor of the opposition – because that is pretty much what most of the opposition seem to expect the government to do. Having said that, as the chairman of EPRDF and the Prime Minister put it in his remarks, the government will do everything and the ruling party will also cooperate in making sure that the unrepresented voters, who are very significant by any standards, would have their voices heard in most decisions that affect their life. The government and the ruling party will be working on arrangements that will make sure parties who respect and observer the law of the land would be part of a political process in the country. They do not have to have seats in parliament; they do not have to have most outrageous [number] of popular support; as long as they have views how they think the nation should move forward.

What mechanisms are there for the government to meaningfully engage and hear the voices of those that are not represented in parliament?   

By the way, even among those who voted for EPRDF, not all of them agree with the implementation of its policies 100 percent. There are some people who voted for EPRDF not so much because they agree 100 percent with EPRDF’s performance but because they reject the kind of hate politics that is advanced by some of the opposition. So, we have to make a firm distinction. EPRDF is mindful of the fact that its mandate is fraught with serious responsibilities. Responsibilities that only a progressive party such as EPRDF can live up to. EPRDF is more than willing to introduce whatever institutional changes are necessary to make sure that those voices are heard. EPRDF does not operate on the basis of ‘because you have voted for me I will do this for you’ or ‘or because you voted against me you will get it in the neck’. That is not the kind of thinking that permeates EPRDF’s practice. EPRDF will be holding consultations with the public as is its culture. In due course, it will identify mechanisms of ensuring the participation of the public, even those whose votes are not represented in the House of Peoples’ Representatives. For example, the public will be participated in further discussing the draft GTP II document. This document is not just a simple economic document. It is a document in which political, social and economic objectives are stated. And the people deserve to be part of that discussion.               

One sort of mechanism is the Political Parties’ Council set up in 2010. But how effective would that be given the absence of political parties who won the largest chunk of the votes that went to the opposition, namely Medrek and Blue Party, in the latest result?

The Political Parties’ Council has had its own very good contributions especially when it comes to making this election peaceful. But EPRDF is not constrained by the already existing institutional structures when it comes to extending its ideal of cooperation with the rest of the public. If these so-called big parties are willing to behave normally, in the sense that respect the constitution, behave as other parties do, there is no reason why they should not be part of even a much more extended and much more enlarged council, or call it what you may, that will be working with the government and EPRDF on a number of issues. What to call that platform will be very much academic at this point.

Putting extra conditions on a political party legally registered and operating in the country, would it not defeat the purpose of engaging the public who are behind these political parties?

What conditions? Respect the constitution? Why would it be an extra condition?

Those arguments often lead to subjective interpretations. It can be argued that the fact that they are legally registered means they respect the constitution.

EPRDF does not put respect the constitution as a condition. No. What it says is, it can only work with those who would take the constitution seriously. Seriously enough to be governed by it. Period! Some party that thinks of itself as it is extra constitutional, feels entitled to wreak havoc, or at least try to wreak havoc in this country, simply because it is not part of this or that council would be unacceptable. This will not be a question of whether the voices represented by this party will be heard or not. When and if that party starts behaving in a manner that runs counter to the constitution it becomes a criminal activity. It is not going to be a condition for any sort of negotiation or for any constructive or destructive engagement. It is going to be a rule of law issue. Period! If you are in the business of making alliances with terrorist groups halfway across the world and trying to use any means possible and necessary, as they say, and yet try to take advantage of the peaceful and legal process at their disposal, well you cannot have it both ways. That is not even a condition. That is a warning. Otherwise, even those who have even the deepest of contempt and hatred towards EPRDF, if they can keep the hatred to themselves they can be part of the constructive political process. They can hate the ruling party’s guts. All they have to do is respect the decision of the voters and at least respect the people who have voted for them. These people voted for them peacefully and calmly because they believed in the power of their voters’ card. But if these parties do not have the slightest respect not only for the constitution but also for people who voted for them, they should not be in the business of any arrangement that is meant to enhance democracy in this country.