Prospects of the Ethiopian multi-party system discussed in Mekelle

The ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is currently engaged in the negotiation process with opposition political parties. So far, they have discussed two of the most controversial proclamations enacted after the relatively competitive 2005 election, namely, the Political Parties’ Registration and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamations. According to the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), there are now 63 legally registered political parties. However, the political space is very much crowded by the ruling party that the opposition parties’ role in the multi-party system of the country is close to meaningless.

The prospects and challenges of the Ethiopian multi-party system, the role of political parties, and their links to democracy were the subject of an important discussion organized by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Mekelle University on February 14-15th, 2018 in Mekelle, where top leadership of political parties were present. The conference happened after the Ethiopian Government has recently admitted that the role of political parties in the promotion of multi-party system.

Seven presentations were held by Associate and Assistant Professors, and lecturers from Addis Ababa University, Mekelle University, Hawassa University, and Gondar University. The presented papers all focused on questions of multi-party system and its constitutional governance. Among the presenters were Dr. Kassahun Berhanu (Department of Political Science and International Relations, Addis Ababa University), Dr. Beza Dessalegn (School of Law, Hawassa University), Ato Gebrehiwot Hadush (dean, College of Law and Social Sciences, Mekelle University), and Ato Wondwossen Wakene (School of Law, Gondar University). Furthermore, there were more than 100 participants from different universities and organizations, which contributed a lot by participating actively and engaging themselves in the discussion of a variety of issues.

Given recent political developments, the conference had a timely agenda. The presenters stressed that political parties can play a crucial role to the development of democracy, particularly to that of representative democracy. Political parties are the means whereby the public expresses its political and socio-economic ideals in an organized way by providing avenues for citizen’s participation. They serve as source of political power; they aggregate the interests of their constituencies; they strive to advance policy and leadership choices; they structure issues; they represent and integrate various social groups; they advance and aggregate specific interests; and they are key institutions in building healthy democracy.

However, as opposed to the ideal role of political parties, in Ethiopia, even if the multi-party system is proclaimed in the FDRE Constitution and a considerable number of parties have been formed with a varying political ideology, political parties in Ethiopia are often blamed for failing to create an enabling environment for the development of a multi-party system in the country. In this context, the opposition political parties are more criticized for lack of providing appealing policy alternatives and institutional strength.

However, they can only discharge these ideal roles in the presence of a well-functioning multi-party system. Such a system, beyond the mere existence of several parties, allows for the existence of an effective opposition that checks undue influences and practices of ruling parties.

The success of multi-party system mainly depends on the internal institutional capacity of political parties and external management of the system legally and administratively. Formal internal decision-making procedures of parties and well-coordinated structures with clearly defined channels of communication are among internal factors affecting the activities of political parties.

In this context, Dr. Kassahun Berhanu notes that adequately institutionalized political parties often shy away from subservience to the whims of individual leaders and self-serving interests by strictly observing established organizational principles. However, he observes that Ethiopian political parties have low capacity in institutional and financial and human resources.

Though parties claim adherence to democratic principles in internal organizational life, Dr. Kassahun provides that instances of allegations by disaffected members abound citing incidences of violations perpetrated by party leaders. Members or factions file complaints against their leaders at the courts and election management bodies alleging violation of party statutes.

In the formal sense, Dr. Kassahun argues, legislative provisions governing the workings of the multiparty system in Ethiopia appear to be fair, enabling, and up-to-standard. The problem, however, he further holds, is these are not fully translated into practice as evidenced by several flaws like alleged lack of credibility election management bodies, EPRDF’s undue use of its advantage of incumbency, and paucity of internal democracy and institutionalized leadership characterizing many parties.

Constituency or support base of political parties/policy alternatives, why Ethiopian political parties are hostile to each other, the impact of the Marxist-Leninist ideology on the operation of the current multi-party system of the country, the legitimacy of the electoral process in the country, under what standard criteria the electoral constituencies are set up in Ethiopia, were the some of the topics that stir hot debates on the conference.