Ethiopia: Not a two-party system, but there will definitely be fewer parties as coalitions

October 16, 2018 Africa , Interviews , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , OTHER , POLITICS

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Fanuel Lakew interviews Dr. Costantinos Berhutesfa



Dr. Costantinos Berhutesfa teaches public policy at the School of Graduate Studies at Addis Ababa University. He is a chair at Lem Ethiopia—the Environment & Development Society and a Trustee at Africa Humanitarian Action. We discussed Ethiopia’s multi-party politics, political parties, current political reforms, among others.



Fanuel Lakew: Can you tell us the relations between democracy and multiparty?



Dr. Costantinos: Democracy now has many names: liberal democracy, revolutionary democracy, social democracy, and Christian…democracy. What is in a Name? What is democracy and what are the versions of democracy imposed on people. Democracy means the active participation of the people, as citizens of a political society. It is a system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections. It is fundamentally a system that protects the human rights of all citizens and a rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens. The classical Athenian democracy was direct democracy. According to Nitisha, 2018, in Political Science, there were, besides Athens, other Greek city states but among all the city states Athens was most prominent and powerful. Direct democracy in Athens developed in between 800-500 BC.


The Athenians were really proud at the type of direct democracy that worked in their city-state. The classical democracy of Athens assumed the form of mass meeting where the Athenians periodically met together to take stock of the situation of the state and make policies and decisions. The chief political ideals were equality among all people (here the appropriate word is citizens), liberty and respect for law and justice. The Athenians paid high and glowing tribute to justice and law. What we now call rule of law, that system prevailed in ancient Greece and from there it later on, ramified in other parts of Europe. Because of the prevalence of equality in Greek city-states all the citizens could get the opportunity to participate in the policy/decision making process of the state. Thucydides stated the ideals and aims of Athenian democracy in an address attributed to Pericles’ funeral.


Aristotle’s The Politics (written between 335 and 323 BCE) provides an account of democracy. ‘The foundation of democratic constitution is liberty. Every democracy has liberty for its aim. ‘Ruling and being ruled in turn’ is one element of liberty. Justice is the democratic idea as numerical equality, not equality based on merit and when this idea of what is right prevails, the people must be sovereign and whatever the majority decides that is final and that is justice; the poor have more sovereign power than the men of property.’ Live as you like’ is another mark of a free man. ‘Living as you not like is the mark of one enslaved. Aristotle’s fundamental principles of democracy are:


Officials of the city state will come through the elections and all citizens are eligible for all posts or offices where a common rule will operate throughout the state and this rule is rule over each and each by turn over all and all the citizens are eligible for all posts excepting the posts which require special qualifications.


No tenure of office dependent on the possession of property qualification and at the same time no man can hold the same office twice and a person will be allowed to hold office only for once in his lifetime and a short tenure of office at that. However, in the field of warfare this principle will not hold.


The Assembly will have the sovereign authority over anything except minor matters.


The basis of classical democracy was equality in respect of rights and privileges, but protective democracy was seen less as a mechanism through which public could participate in political life, and more as a device through which citizens could protect themselves from the encroachments of government, hence protective democracy’. The main basis of democracy is liberty and equality. Special emphasis is laid on equality in democracy and there is no disparity among the people on the basis of caste, creed, religion and position or status: Democracy can become successful only in a peaceful atmosphere, otherwise democracy has to face many difficulties – fraternity. In a democracy, people are the ultimate source of sovereignty, and the government derives its power from them. In a democracy people are given fundamental rights because in the absence of these rights the development of an individual is not possible. In a democracy, it is responsibility of the judiciary to protect the fundamental rights of the people. The people are considered as an end and State as the means in a democracy. Democracy pays special attention to the welfare of the people.


Democracy, no doubt, has its own defects, but no government is a panacea for all human ills. Hence, it is preferred to aristocracy, oligarchy and dictatorship. Democracy is preferred by the people of the world because it still offers better prospects and some gleams of hope.




A multiparty system is one where multiple political parties exist and have a chance of leading the government. In a multi-party system, many parties will promise the electorate that they will defend peoples’ rights, advance the economy and protect the citizenry against external and internal aggression much better that their competitors. Many countries have a minimum of two and in some more than three parties. In the US, the dominant parties are the Democrats and Republicans. Rachel Eckhardt in the seminal piece, “The More the Merrier: Would a multi-party system work in America? (Huffington Post, 6 Dec 2017).


Apart from our constant partisan bickering, liberals and conservatives actually agree on many core values, such as personal liberty, equality and free speech. It makes sense to have two parties that agree on our central ideals, but disagree how to accomplish them. A two-party government tends to be more stable and easier to govern; volatility is a large weakness in countries with many parties. Tradition plays a significant role, as we remain entrenched in the party arrangement that we have had for much of our history. The principal reason is our “winner take all” Electoral College system, wherein a party wins all (or none) of the allotted votes for each state, based on the majority vote. The losing party gets no representation, rather than a percentage of it, as in a proportional system. This setup perpetuates itself, and makes a third party win nearly impossible.


George Washington left us with an ominous warning about a two-party system in his farewell address: The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.


Democracy and Republic


A US Army manual defines, “Citizenship Democracy as a government of the masses and authority is derived through mass meeting or any other form of direct expression, results in mobocracy. Attitude toward property negates property rights. Attitude toward law is that the will of the majority shall regulate life whether it is be based upon deliberation or gov­erned by passion, prejudice and impulse; without restraint or regard to consequences. Results in demagoguism, license, agitation, discontent and anarchy.”


The same manual describes “Citizenship Republic as authority is derived through the election by the people of public officials best fitted to represent them. Attitude toward law is the administration of justice in accord with fixed principles and established evidence, with a strict regard to consequences. A greater number of citizens and extent of territory may be brought within its compass. It avoids the dangerous extreme of either tyranny or mobocracy. It results in stately leadership, liberty, reason, justice, contentment and progress is the standard form of government throughout the world. A republic is a form of government under a constitution, which provides for the election of an executive and a legislative body, who working together in a representative capacity, have all the power of appointment, all power of legislation, all power to raise revenue and appropriate expenditures. Both are required to create a judiciary to pass upon the justice and legality of their government acts and to recognise certain inherent individual rights. Take away any one or more of those four elements and you are drifting into autocracy, add one to those elements and you are drifting into democracy.



FL: How do you see the politics of multiparty in Ethiopia?


Dr. Costantinos: In 1991, a new régime came to power through force after waging a prolonged armed struggle against the Dergue régime. However, unlike the Dergue and other preceding régimes, this régime called on vari­ous political organisations and groupings to discuss the future of Ethiopia and facilitate an environment for a peaceful transition of power. The Ethiopian Peace & Democratic Conference that brought vari­ous political groups convened from July 1 to 5, 1991 discussed and endorsed a Charter laying down the rules governing the transitional government. The Charter was designed to serve as an interim constitution. Accordingly, an 87 seat Council of Representatives (CoR) was formed and a Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) came in to being with EPRDF, OLF and other parties represented 32, 12 and 30 seats respectively. Moreover, the Charter provided a legal ground for the establishment of political parties with varying orientations.


The parties were the Afar Liberation Front, Agew People’s Democratic Movement, APDM, Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement, Burji People’s Democratic Organisation, Ethiopian Democratic Action Group, Ethiopian Democratic Coalition, Ethiopian Democratic Union, Ethiopian National Democratic Organisation, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front [Amhara People’s Democratic Movement (APDM), Ethiopian Democratic Officers Revolutionary Movement, Oromo Peoples Democratic Organisation (OPDO), Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)], Gambella People’s Liberation Movement, Gedeo People’s Democratic Front, Guraghe People’s Democratic Front, Harari National League, Hdya National Democratic Organisation, Horyal, Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromo, Issa and Gurgura Liberation Front, Kaffa People’s Democratic Union, Kambata People’s Congress, Omotic Peoples’ Democratic Front, Oromo Abo Liberation Front, Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Sidama People’s Liberation Movement, United Oromo People’s Liberation Front, Wolayta People’s Democratic Front, Workers party and Yem People’s Movement.


The transition introduced multi-party election for the first time in the history of Ethiopia. For the first time, elections were held in 1992 for local and regional assemblies. The main purpose of the elections was to offer for local autonomy through decentralisation of governance. However, the elections were unsuccessful in providing any mean­ingful choice to the electorate due to the absence of contesting par­ties – the All Amhara People’s Organisation (AAPO) and OLF boy­cotted the elections (Nagish, Tronvoll, Aalen, etc.,) observed this landmark event, which was intended to symbolise the change to plural politics, rather caused the continuation of authoritarianism in the country. It provoked the withdrawal of the OLF that constituted the second biggest party in the transitional government and other political groupings that were a vital compo­nent in legitimating an all-inclusive transitional government. The elections became the exclusive affair of domi­nant party in the Transitional Government which won 1,108 (96.6%) out of 1147 regional seats. The elections were not ‘free and fair’, even from the point of their procedural aspects. There was lack of campaigning and information among voters on the stakes and candidates, and shortage of ballot papers. Overall, the 1992 elections only served as the furtherance of institutionalisation of its rule in the country (Abbink, 2000:168, Weldekidan, 2006; Gudina, 1997:83 in Nagish, 2010).


The major factor that detracted the process was the controversy over ‘which front should administer the south-eastern parts of Ethiopia’ that immediately escalated into armed clashes between EPRDF and OLF. In fact, a new agreement was reached in Feb. 1992, with the help of the US and then Sha’ébia. The agreement required all troops in the Oromia region to be encamped before the elections were con­ducted. How­ever, due to the political atmosphere the agreement reached between the two parties helped none. OLF was determined to withdraw immediately from the process and the tran­sitional government. It also called back its candidates from the upcom­ing election and tried to take out its troops from the camp, which led to some skirmishes with government forces.


The 1992 local election was carried out in a context of fear and armed clashes in several parts of the country. Obviously, the country was not ready, either politically or logistically, to carry out such a complex political endeav­our.


The UN Observer Group’s mission was aborted and evacuated due to these hostilities. Observers reported that the elec­tion was stained by irregularities and the post-election period was marked by political crackdowns. In the aftermath, other parties also left the much-awaited transitional government. Since then, politics was completely controlled by the dominant party in the Transitional Government. In such away, it is al­leged that it might have been successful in systemically alienating its major ethnic contenders, the OLF and the All Amhara People’s Organisation, from electoral politics forever. Perhaps the only beneficiary might be the incumbent, which for long time enjoyed the fruit of political power without a significant democratic challenge. To a serious spectator, the upshot of the 1991/1992 period, have thus hang on throughout all subsequent elections.


The 2005 election had come with promises of democracy but the challenges brought about by the incumbent and the opposition sealed the last nail on the coffin of democracy in Ethiopia. According to Yemane Nagish’s MA thesis “Ethiopia Between ‘Election Events’: The Impact of the 2005 and 2010 Pre-Election Politics on Competitive Elections – A thesis submitted to the school of graduate studies of Addis Ababa University” that I supervised.


The pre-electoral period of 2005 was a historic opening of democratic space in Ethiopia. Despite continuing obstacles, the country had benefited from the ruling party’s desire for a ‘flawless’ election that would show Ethiopia’s democratic progress. The incumbent for the first time had to face a democratic challenge. However, its fruit had a bitter taste. In the after math of the election, the major opposition’s discarded the verdict of the public and the ‘rigid’ political behaviour of the ruling party had led to a political deadlock. In 2008, the government expanded its full control over the local administration. Surprisingly enough, it ensured a total monopoly over the parliament in election 2010. In between the ‘election events’, repressive laws were enacted that curtailed the political space. This coupled by political intimidations against the ‘neutralized’ opposition, the pre-election period of the 2010 election became gloomy. There is the tendency to return to ‘authoritarianism’.


While, elections are the defining foundation of democracy that determine whether democratic regimes become consolidated; approaches to regime consolidation based solely on elections have been criticized for risking the fallacy of electoralism. Formal procedures for elections do not make a democracy because, as experience has shown, elections can blur disenfranchisement, and, even if regularly and fairly conducted, do not, in-and-of-themselves; constitute a democracy. It is the institutionalization of political rules and institutions that fully guarantee peaceful political participation and political competition, which in themselves are hallmarks of competitive elections.


Such ‘fallacy’ aside, the electoral quantity of the May 2005 elections had attracted all ninety-plus parties and the majority of the voters. On the flip side, the electoral quality has been contested in many arenas that arose from how free and fair the election were, in setting the rules and administering the vote count. Because elections involve intangible elements of perceived legitimacy that mould political power, they were contested in emblematic as well as practical terms. As observers asserted, the quality deteriorated across stages, hence, political contenders struggled to control ballot box outcomes. The questions of electoral meaning also came eventually to light in terms of the mandate of the incumbent that remained contested, compelling analysts to delve beyond partisan gossip to interpret diverse representations.


Additionally, precisely because elections threaten incumbents with potential loss of power, they generate strong incentives to the contrary. As the late Professor Donald Lavin penned:


In contrast to previous elections, the regime made efforts to offer opposition parties access to the public media. They also took the initiative to invite a number of international observers to monitor the elections. Despite their perception that certain opposition leaders had colluded to take over the reins of power by ‘unconstitutional’ means, the leadership encouraged them to take their seats in Parliament to which they refused. On the other hand, the regime sent away some of the legitimate election observers and rushed to impose martial law the very evening of Election Day that disheartened the opposition from joining parliament. In contrast to previous elections, virtually all ninety plus opposition parties participated in the 2005 election, setting a wonderful precedent for future engagement in the national political process. They also showed statesmanship in their decision not to make resolving the disputes over contested seats a precondition for their participation in the Parliament (Levin, 2006:1-2).


Thus, the crises that ensued after the 2005 elections sealed the fate of the fifty-plus opposition and of democracy in Ethiopia, manifested by a complete win by the incumbent in 2010 and 2015. Today, PM Abiy has invited all opposition groups (over a hundred) in Ethiopia and the diaspora to participate in the political processes in the upcoming elections.



FL: How do you evaluate the stance and quality of political parties in Ethiopia?


Dr. Costantinos: The main ideological trust of the ruling party in Ethiopia is revolutionary democracy. It is worthwhile to look into historical genesis before we evaluate the stance and quality of parties in Ethiopia. A democratic revolution is a political science term denoting a revolution in which a democracy is instituted, in which revolutionary change is brought about usually without violence. While people’s democracies were considered a form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, classes such as the peasantry, petite bourgeoisie and progressive bourgeoisie were allowed to participate. The difference between people’s democracy and Soviet democracy allowed the USSR to maintain a position of superiority as the only pure proletarian democracy. Nikita Khrushchev explicitly stated that the possibility of peaceful transition to people’s democracy was predicated in the global strength of the USSR as a superpower. The Soviet textbook “A Dictionary of Scientific Communism” defined people’s democracy as follows:


People’s Democracy, a form of the dictatorship of the proletariat established in several European and Asian countries as a result of popular-democratic revolutions in the 1940s which developed into socialist revolutions. It emerged at a new stage in the world revolutionary process and reflected the specific way in which the socialist revolution was developing at a time when imperialism was weakened and the balance of world forces had tipped in favour of socialism. The common features characteristic of people’s democracy as a form of the dictatorship of the proletariat were determined by the broad social base underlying the socialist revolutions that occurred in the European and Asian countries after World War II, their relatively peaceful development and the assistance and support rendered to them by the Soviet Union. Yet, in each particular country, people’s democracy has its own distinctive features, since the socialist changeover took place there under specific historical and national conditions. Unlike the Soviet Union, where a single-party system emerged in the course of history, in most of the countries under people’s democratic rule, a multi-party system was formed. The parties united in the Popular Front to fight fascism and imperialism; under these conditions, the multi-party system helped to expand the social base of the revolution and better fulfil the tasks facing it. Leading positions were held by Communist and Workers’ Parties (this was the case in the East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia). To strengthen cohesion within the ranks of the working class, the Communist and Workers’ Parties in several European countries merged with Social-Democratic parties on the basis of Marxism-Leninism while in Hungary and Romania the multi-party system was replaced by a single-party one.


Trotskyists and other dissident anti-Stalinist Communists were against the idea of people’s democracy which they saw as denying the Leninist insistence on the class essence of all state power. The ‘Peoples Democracy’ programme proved unworkable, however. The combination of the pressure of the working class and peasantry in favour of expropriation of the capitalists and landowners and the inability of the Soviet bureaucracy to manage a capitalist economy forced Stalin into a policy that he never anticipated. In Soviet-occupied Europe, the Red Army was the State. The social relations of production upon which the Red Army rested, i.e. the political-economy of the Soviet Union, imposed themselves upon the countries it occupied. Stalin’s diplomacy could not eradicate the fundamental antagonism between the workers’ state and international capitalism. The same policy was carried in China under the ‘Bloc of Four classes’.


Coming back to Ethiopia, the ruling party’s Revolutionary Democracy insight is the single most important influence over how democratic transition has been conceived, initiated and was constitutionally formalised is the politics of ethnic self-determination and self-government. Although impetuously effected, the strategy appears to have been operative not only in allowing the victor to carry out its specific political agenda and ideological goals, but also in setting the tone for the political agency and activities of alternative and opposition groups, i.e., in channelling their activities along generally ethnic lines. With the emergence of PM Abiy Ahmed in the wombs of the revolutionary democrats, it is difficult to see this political paradigm will see the light of day anywhere in the future, given the fact that it has created so much confusion among the political elite and the public.



FL: What kind of party system does Ethiopia need? Two-party system or multiparty? Do you think Ethiopia is in a position to install the two-party system?


Dr. Costantinos: It may not be a two-party system but definitely they will be fewer parties as coalitions will be formed if they plan to out seat the incumbent that controls the economic and martial power in the country. As we have seen in the 2005 elections, eventually, the opposition came into two major coalitions – Mederk and CUD.



FL: How do you see Dr Abiy’s move towards letting political parties into the country and EPRDF’s move from one dominant party to multiparty? Was it genuine?


Dr. Costantinos: With a life span of many decades, the Ethiopian state has exhibited an enhanced degree of coercive power deployed for both construction and territorial expansion. This resulted in a pervasive military ethos and the fusion of political and military titles.


Today, while PM Dr. Abiy Ahmed inherits a spectacular economic and infrastructure growth, hundreds of thousands graduating yearly from vocational schools, universities, a ten-years increase in life expectancy in a decade, and meeting the MDGs, but, because of the frustrated populace he has now emerged to transform the security situation which predicated a martial law to silence it, after his historic speech focused on Ethiopianness and the need to act together as citizens of a single political society. The remaining agenda is to fix the economic and social governance and the livelihood of Ethiopia’s youth.


I see absolute genuineness in PM Abiy’s moves to widen the political space and to make his ruling party a competitive political organ that can win the spoils of power using democratic political participation and political competition. Whatever his party chooses as a strategy remains to be seen, but Abiy has given another life to a party that had transformed the economic infrastructure and education of the youth of Ethiopia; but, had at the same time, lost the confidence of the same youth it had meticulously educated and enlightened to question its governance strategies.





Professor Costantinos Berhutesfa

Costantinos has been until recently working with the United Nations as Senior Policy Adviser on poverty & sustainable development to the UN in New York, South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Malawi, working extensively on poverty, disaster reduction, streamlining government, private sector development policies and Public Private Sector participation. Costantinos has also served as chairperson of the African Union Board on the Convention to Prevent and Combat Corruption. He teaches public policy at the School of Graduate Studies at the AAU and serves as chair of nine NGOs. He has published extensively on public policy and institutional reforms and is author of a number of publications.


Fanuel Lakew

Fanuel Lakew is a reporter at the Ethiopian Herald Newspaper of the Ethiopian Press Agency. He did his B.A. degree in Political Science and International Relations from Addis Ababa University in 2012. He also served as the Secretary-General of the Ethiopian Political Science and International Relations. He as well studied M.A. in Politics and International Relations at the Central University of Gujarat, India. He can be reached at [email protected]

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