Los Angeles Times
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Ethiopian Election Dilemma: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't
By Dilbato Degoye Waqo 07/11/2019
"If large rural majorities in Africa are too poor to participate, too dispersed to organize, too remote from information to know alternatives, a multiparty democratic system with universal suffrage does not give them democratic influence. Not least the experience of fascist masses applauding irrational, violent and destructive policies brought philosophers to understand that democracy cannot work without a high level of information, knowledge and commitment to a wider public. Democracy requires considerable depth of opinion, a high level of political consciousness and responsibility in the population at large. Without it, no regular vote and no number of parties can guarantee democracy." [Siegfried Pausewang, "Peasant Self-determination and the State..., 1994]
As the present regime's term of office ends after seven months and as we serenely ponder over the upcoming 6th periodic national and regional elections in May, 2020, there are a number of serious issues that stand as impediments to the holding of peaceful, free and credible elections in the country. Among these can be mentioned the ascendancy of informally networked and unemployed youth groups across the country (Querro, Qarre, Folle, Fanno, Zerma, Kabera, Zoba, Lakayto, Hego, etc.) unhesitant to make or break government initiatives, plans and programmes, the prevalence of internecine ethnic conflicts, the absence of public order, rule of law and the presence of a fragile coalition government unable to insure domestic public and national security, stability and that hardly enjoys strong legitimacy and credibility. Furthermore, to introduce and sustain a stable democracy, a country needs more than elections and a parliament; it also needs a strong state. When much of the population fears death by gang beating, waylaying on the highways and attacking from ambush, stoning and home torching , starvation, disease or gunfire, the state is not just weak---it has virtually ceased to exist. When the people see themselves as victims rather than beneficiaries of the system, they have little use for the ballot box and little regard for constitutional procedure. All they want is a modicum of safety, equity and discipline, which is what Abiy Ahmed and the Ethiopian military and police force are promising these days.
Above all, Ethiopia today finds itself as one amongst the ten poorest nations in the world where over 80% of its population are poor peasants living in backward rural areas with no electricity and other essential services and depending for their modest livelihood on traditional subsistence agriculture; where illiteracy rate is above 60% and where fear under a repressive state system is the long-prevailing order for several decades up until now, and further disadvantaged by a distressingly low standard of education at all levels and very poor transport infrastructure as well as rampant unemployment in a country where 70% of the population (over 101 million) constitute the youth population under 30 years of age. In the face of such formidable political, economic and social challenges confronting us today, introducing multiparty democracy and holding free elections in a country where more than 107 poorly organized political groupings circulate in the nation's political marketplace is easier said than done; these threats and weaknesses indeed pose formidable challenges in the short- term for our poor and underdeveloped country on the brink of civil war, anarchy and chaos owing to unbridled press freedom whipping up immense ethnic and religious hatred and animosity against contending national and religious groups via privately held and freely broadcasted media channels day in, day out without any regulatory body so far effectively controlling their dangerous propaganda at all.
Under the prevailing political environment, though we cannot imagine democracy without free and fair elections and credible opposition parties freely competing in the upcoming periodic elections such processes alone cannot guarantee us any functional and sustainable democracy worthy of the name. Yes, even though we most often argue and subscribe to glowing statements about the virtues of a democratic political system and free elections which we have seldom witnessed in our country except perhaps the sadly bungled up national elections in May, 2005, hard empirical and historical evidence has clearly and unambiguously shown us that adopting multiparty democracy and conducting free elections can be quite destructive in many economically least developed and socially less cohesive societies such as Ethiopia today. As reiterated here above, elections alone do not produce democracy worthy of the name at all. In such less-least-developed societies (LLDCs), introducing democracy and conducting free and fair elections have not brought about the desired outcome of functional and stable democratic regimes but in most cases resulted in deadly public disorder, bloodletting and chaos. God forbid!
For instance, in Sri Lanka in the 1950s, as in Yugoslavia and the Caucasus in the 1980s, political elites pandered to ethnic nationalism of the dominant group to bolster their electoral prospects. Eventually, the antagonisms they had instigated between the majority and minority groups became uncontrollable and their countries collapsed in ethnic violence and civil war. In these cases, democracy was not a panacea but a disaster. This is why the democracy we see around the world today often has a distinctly ugly face. On the eve of the 1996 elections in Bosnia, the architect of the Dayton Peace Accords, American diplomat Richard Holbrooke fretted: "Suppose the election was declared free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists, [extremists, terrorists] who are publicly opposed to peace and re-integration. That is the dilemma." [Newsweek, October 1997].
Indeed it is, not only in the former Yugoslavia but increasingly around the world, including Ethiopia today. Just reminisce the Algerian elections in 1990 and 1992 in which the Islamic Front (NIF) won a plurality of votes in the legislative elections, the Palestinian elections in 2006 which brought to power the anti-US and anti-Israel Islamist party (Hamas), and the recent Egyptian elections in the wake of Hosni Mubarak’s downfall in 2012 which enabled the neo-Wahhabi Muslim Brotherhood party to win the majority of votes. In each case, the incumbent governments of the three countries were forced to rescind the election results even though the elections were free and fair to qualify as democratic, sending the respective nations into turmoil, civil war and chaos.
Just imagine for a moment what political situation would ensue if some of the dozen or more ethnic-based ultra-nationalist and separatist political groups that have been allowed to circulate in the nation's political marketplace and that vehemently abhor civic nationalism and the supremacy of Ethiopian identity (Ethiopian nationalism) over their localized ethnic nationalism and cultural identity or those who ardently believe that it is their birth right to ensure their all-dominant position in state power and national economy and thus impose their rule over all others would win the upcoming national elections in 2020 or 2025 in our country!
Just to reminisce some of the election failures in Africa: In 1985 the Sudanese overthrew a military regime and replaced it with a new government, which the following year held free and fair elections. Sudan's newly elected democracy led immediately to anarchy, which in turn led to the most brutal tyranny in Sudan's post-colonial history: a military regime that broadened the scope of executions, persecuted women, starved non-Muslims to death, sold kidnapped non-Muslim children back to their parents for $200, and made Khartoum the terrorism capital of the Arab World, replacing Beirut [Robert D. Kaplan: 1997].
In Sierra Leone and Congo-Brazzaville elections have led to chaos. In Mali, which Africa-watchers have christened a democratic success story, recent elections were boycotted by the opposition and were marred by killings and riots. Voter turnout was less than 20 percent." (Kaplan: ibid)
Democracy, like any other political system is ultimately about state power. And for those with power it becomes a means of retaining their position via fair or foul means, i.e. by any means possible thus going astray from their previous promises of consolidating and building stable and well-functioning democracy that would benefit the present and future generations. As Daniel Kaufmann correctly sums up: “History has shown that even those who rose to power with good intentions soon became corrupt. They took advantage of their position to enrich themselves and their family and friends. Then in order to protect their wealth and power, they silenced those who threatened their authority. As one injustice led to another, and as their friends became fewer, they grew increasingly paranoid and oppressive. They desperately clung to power in fear that if they lost control then they might also lose their fortunes, their freedom, and possibly even their lives.” [Daniel Kaufmann, “The Rise of Modern Democracy”, 2008].
It is a well recognized principle, for example, that one of the most important conditions of the existence and sustainability of a democratic society is respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, and among these freedoms, freedom of expression is considered the most precious and, indeed, the very foundation of such a society. But in newly democratizing societies, media manipulation often plays a central role in promoting national and ethnic conflict, and thus, promoting unconditional freedom of speech or speech without any legal limitations and public debate in such societies is, in many circumstances, likely to make the problem worse, even devastating. Historically and today, from the French Revolution to Rwanda, sudden liberalizations of press freedom have been associated with bloody outbursts of popular nationalism.
The grim story of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the sheer horrors of neighbors hacking each other to pieces---neighbors who had previously lived together in apparent harmony-- was decisively influenced by the active manipulation of ethnicity by the incumbent Hutu regime, whipping up popular resentment against the minority Tutsis by misusing the power of media freedom, especially the TV, radio and print media. That is one solid example of the dilemma with unconditional press freedom in newly emerging democracies today. It is because ethnically heterogeneous societies are divided and not cohesive unlike integrated class societies in the well-developed Western democratic societies, and thus what works well for those class societies does not work for today's multiethnic/multi-national societies. This grim fact should be well understood by all political elites in transition societies, which sometimes do not seem transitioning to nowhere.
In such societies, economic democracy, i.e. addressing first and foremost the pressing issues of substantive democracy, cohesive unity and social justice are more important than electoral democracy and multi-party pluralism.
As Vera points out, the most dangerous situation is precisely when the government's press monopoly begins to break down [Van Vera, "Hypotheses", p.33; Human Rights Watch, Playing the "Communal Card,"' p. VII]. "During incipient democratization, when civil society is burgeoning but democratic institutions are not fully entrenched, the state and other elites are forced to engage in public debate in order to compete for mass allies in the struggle for power." [Van Vera, "Hypotheses," p. 33]. Under these circumstances, governments and their opponents often have the motive and the opportunity to play the nationalist/ethnic card. When this occurs, unconditional freedom of public debate or free speech is a dubious remedy. Just as economic competition produces socially beneficial results only in a well-institutionalized marketplace, where monopolies and false advertising are counteracted, so too increased debate in the political marketplace leads to better outcomes only when there are mechanisms to correct market imperfections [R. H. Coase, "The Market for Goods and the Market for Ideas," American Economic Review, Vol. 64, No.2, May 1974, pp. 384-391].
The lesson to draw is not that dictatorship is good and democracy bad but that the values of democracy and free market economy, though often mentioned by social theorists as universal human values, are still the values of well-developed Western societies that require non-Western emerging democracies long periods of time to adopt and implant them not only as a form of government but also as a way of life, based on their local conditions. Democracy is said to emerge successfully only as a capstone to other social and economic achievements such as the existence of: a well-informed and literate citizenry; an educated and robust middle class; a critical mass of democrats; a far-sighted, innovative, transformational, and enlightened political leadership of utmost integrity; emancipated womenfolk; an independent judiciary and the rule of law; a responsible political elite and an impartial free press; a non-violent and tolerant political culture and society; in brief, a far-reaching and sustained modernization and industrialization.
Finally, it is a fallacy to assume that a democratic society can be established through violence or revolution, by decree or canons. Democracy can neither be exported nor imposed. It is a learned process and not an inherited political system. It takes time and exacts huge costs. Democratization of non-democratic societies is a highly complex, complicated social, political and cultural process.
Multiparty politics and elections are necessary for democracy but they cannot guarantee the adoption and consolidation of a functioning democratic order. This requires the emergence of a society that espouses the values of democracy and that refuses to live under any form of dictatorship and tyranny. To this end, all political and social forces in the country should agree on the rules of the game that will eventually lead to a stable democratic political system. The road to democracy is bound to become bumpy and full of hurdles, and the need for the concomitant advancement of economic development and democracy cannot be overstated. Yes, this process is destined to become arduous, long and painful but, as the saying goes, “There is no gain without pain.” Above all, any genuine and sustainable democracy has to be able to provide physical security (food, shelter, clothes, healthcare, education, etc.), employment and freedom to the population. After all, “democracy without bread is fragile and bread without democracy is bitter.” (Dennis Austin, Liberal Democracy in Non-Western States, Minnesota, 1995, p. 7)
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