Power and electoral politics in Ethiopia

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In this blog, Elise Dufief argues that in the 2005 and 2010 elections, the Ethiopian government repeatedly made empty gestures towards democratic practice so that it could strengthen the state and secure its incumbency without risking international condemnation. We should expect that similar tactics will be used in May 2015 and, despite the political and economic challenges that Ethiopia is facing, if international actors do not change their approach, we should expect the government to succeed. Elise Dufief is a PhD candidate at the University of Northwestern and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

Despite the rise of specific instruments such as election monitoring, international democracy promotion is challenged by the global retreat of democracy. The case of Ethiopia demonstrates how political space can be narrowed, a dominant regime strengthened, and election observer missions constricted in their capacity to influence outcomes. Election monitoring can deepen the contradictions between regime practices and the ideals of external democracy promoters.

Why does the Ethiopian government regularly organize elections and invite election observers only to reject their findings? How did the governing party come close to losing the 2005 election yet triumph in 2010 with 99.6% of the parliamentary seats? Why do international actors such as the EU Observer Mission continue to participate in these processes where their credibility is tarnished? In short, how are democracy promotion instruments strategically used to benefit a non-democratic regime?

Since the overthrow of the communist regime of Mengistu in May 1991, Ethiopia has organized regular elections in which an increasing number of international actors, especially election observers, have been involved. During this period, one political organization, the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has dominated the political landscape. As the organisation’s leader, Meles Zenawi served continuously as head of government until his death in August 2012. He was succeeded by his vice-Prime Minister, Haile Mariam Dessalegn.

The tensions and contradictions between the work of external democracy promoters and the practices and ideals of the Ethiopian leadership were brought into sharp focus after the 2005 and 2010 elections. Both elections led to a diplomatic crisis, especially between the regime and EU observers. Paradoxically, the EPRDF emerged stronger and more determined out of these crises, while EU observers and their supporters were made weaker.

How does Ethiopia manage to reverse power relations? First, the regime goes through the motions of a democratic performance. Elections are increasingly embedded in international relations, and the government seeks inclusion into the international system by implementing accepted indicators of a democratic system, such as holding national elections and inviting international observers. In 2005, three US organizations were originally invited, including a Carter Center mission led by Jimmy Carter himself. The EU sent one of its biggest missions, and the African Union and the Arab League also participated. In 2010, however, only the AU and the EU took part. The latter redeployed a large number of observers and sought to influence the electoral process despite its limited capacity to realistically observe the elections.

Second, when there was a risk that these observers might critique the government’s performance, the regime excluded them, framing the organisations as a threat to the political stability that the government was attempting to preserve. In 2005, IRI and NDI were expelled from the country before election day. The EU Mission’s final report was rejected by the government, the inconsistencies of the Mission denounced, and the chief of the Mission banned from the country. Similarly, in 2010, the EU final report was rejected, its chief observer banned from the country, and public demonstrations organized against it.

These manoeuvres represent a powerful reassertion of national authority, loosening the hold of critical international institutions. Similar tactics are also used against critics at a national and sub-national level, from opposition parties and civil society.

Third, having bolstered its power, the regime is able to divide and rule any remaining international actors. Those who stay engaged with the country despite the defective electoral process disagreed amongst themselves and state authorities frequently exploited those disagreements. “If it is too difficult to negotiate with Sweden,” they might reason, “then let us talk to the Italians”. “If Europe is proving too difficult, let us meet with the Indians”, and so on. Manipulating this web of shifting alliances, the Ethiopian state emerges stronger, avoiding constraints and conditionalities.

In addition to controlling – or even coercing to some extent – diplomats of European states, the regime also tightened its control over external support for non governmental organisations, limiting the amount of aid that could be spent on democracy promotion. For example, international support for civil society organizations has been limited since 2005 when new laws restricted international funding for NGOs working on human rights and democratization. Most of these organizations were made to re-register and adjust their activities which considerably transformed the landscape of civil society.

With this control over political space, the Ethiopian government is now able to pursue its own agenda: shortly after the 2005 elections, it re-focused attention onto ‘The African Renaissance’.  In 2010 the government launched the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), an ambitious program with both a pro-poor dimension and a commitment to achieve middle-income status by 2025. The GTP has been successful in its early stages as Ethiopia has become one of the fastest growing non-oil exporting economies in the world with an average GTP growth of 10% per year.

With the enhanced economic focus came the reactivation of the Revolutionary Democracy ideology: the idea that the grassroots should be mobilised, but only as a key support-base for the regime. To reach the grassroots, the party- state considerably expanded its local structures. In preparation for the 2013 local elections, the EPRDF mobilized 3.6 million candidates, transforming the administrative structure of the country. It also expanded the party membership to more than 5 million Ethiopians.

The centralised control of the government also gradually expanded in regions. Since 2005, various institutions have been considerably expanded and decentralized. The National Elections Board, for instance, opened branch offices in each federal state and increased its personnel and presence outside Addis Ababa. From about 100 people in 2008, this body now has more than 200 employees working in and outside the capital city. It also announced a broadening of its mandate before the 2010. The Elections Board is now in charge of civic and voter education. In these calculated ways, the EPRDF has used the resources offered by election observers and democracy promoters to increase its capacity to simultaneously expand the state’s political reach and further entrench the ruling party’s domination.

Furthermore, the meaning of democratic governance and human rights in Ethiopia has been altered to include social accountability: donor assistance has been steered towards support for women, youths, and other vulnerable categories in keeping with the GTP. In parallel, a number of legal aid centers –  still highly controlled by the government – have been created, making the provision of legal services a new arena to gain popular support.

Meanwhile, sensitive political issues have been depoliticized through the adoption of a technocratic, developmental discourse, which makes opposition harder. Ethiopia’s political development itself has become a technocratic issue: the quantifying of party members, the level of voters’ participation, and so on. Similarly, international actors present election monitoring as an attempt to fix a technical problem, providing an aura of neutrality to a very political process. GIZ, the German Cooperation agency, was voted the best election observation mission in 2010 in Ethiopia, with judges emphasizing the technical success of the mission while ignoring the failures of some of its observers.

However, this phenomenon of depoliticization of highly political issues does not resolve existing challenges. Rather, it potentially creates more of them. Although the death of Meles Zenawi was followed by a relatively smooth transition, his successor, Haile Mariam Dessalegn, does not seem to be fully in charge. Internal struggles in the party might present a challenge in the lead-up to the May 2015 elections. The emergence of new parties such as the Semayawi Party and the organization of public demonstrations, even if still marginal, pose challenges to the uncontested rule of the EPRDF.

On the economic front, the forecast of growth rates has been revised downward as the first phase of the GTP ends in 2015. In addition, huge development projects such as the construction of the Blue Nile Dam is experiencing financial difficulties and can affect balances of power among countries in the region. The EPRDF cannot count on the small middle class that has emerged as this part of society is shying away from politics.

Ethiopia is not immune to social unrest as localized protests occur throughout the country. Recent signs of potential unrest include tensions caused by the government’s interference in Muslim affairs, students’ demonstrations in Oromia in opposition to the Addis Master Plan, and the arrest of Zone Nine bloggers and journalists.

Nevertheless, the Ethiopian regime continues to be the beneficiary of considerable international support. Prime Minister Dessalegn’s first European visit was to EU headquarters in Brussels to negotiate trade contracts. Ethiopia remains an important strategic partner for the West despite the regime’s dilution of democratic processes and the further entrenchment of hegemonic power. The EPRDF has shown that embracing the trappings of democracy while subverting its content is an effective way to counter external critics while reinforcing state power.

Buoyed by economic growth and effective political control, the regime is well positioned to continue the strategy of out-manoeuvring donors, critics, and anyone demanding political reform. In addition, it can draw on the involvement of non-traditional partners, such as China and India, to further erode the impact of western powers and the agencies they control. These features of political life and the well-honed power strategies of the regime will shape the course of the elections in May 2015.

10 thoughts on “Power and electoral politics in Ethiopia

  1. The regime knows full well that their benefactors the likes of Susan Rice Aka dictator lover and others in the western hemisphere who preach democracy were apologising for woyane;s winning by giving excuses such as “Ethiopia is infantile democracy so it needs time and space” This is funny and it blows on their face to tell us such a garbage.

    Generally for all the ills Africa is suffering is because of the west’s greed and as in the case of Ethiopia, the west are there to destroy it by supporting despotic leaders.

  2. First get the basic fact right. The government did not win 99.6% of the VOTES in 2010; they won 99.6% of the seats in the parliament. If you cannot understand and appreciate the significance of this difference and the implications it has on your narrative, you probably should dare say anything about the topic at all. Cheers

    1. Thanks for the comment and pointing out the slip, the term has been corrected and I think the broad argument still stands.

  3. Abebe, the pemise you try to indicate does not change the fact that the nature of the dictatorial government which as the result made the country a one party state. We don’t see such an intolerence for an opposition that grabs 99.6% seat except North Korea.

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