Message to Medrek: Boycott parliament

By Eskinder Nega / June 28, 2010
Barely a month after the nonsensical 99 % “win” by the EPRDF in this year’s election, gloom has set in stalwartly even in the midst of EPRDF’s happy-go-lucky adherents. The extremist’s dependably silly proclivity for melodrama is also considerably diminished. (EPRDF extremists constitute an amorphous entity unofficially steered by Bereket Simon.) And with federal police and kebele officials shamefully avoiding eye contact with Addis residents, the distressing impact of the election’s “results” seem to be more perceptible on EPRDF’s grassroots than either the opposition or the general public. “This is the first election that has delegitimized the EPRDF in the eyes of its grassroots members,” says a pundit. “No one is really trying to defend it. This is a significant and unforeseen development.” And with Ambassadorships around the world, as opposed to cabinet positions, transformed in to the most coveted postings for senior government and party leaders, the potency of the EPRDF, as many of its critics keenly contend with increasing intensity, seem to be no more the eternal disarray of opposition groups. Alas, the morale of the opposition is in no superior standing; but at least they affably concede to that much. But the election “result” has triggered the underlying covet for change within the public—as many in the EPRDF feared and many in the opposition had yearned.

Take the case of Assefa, a high school teacher in Addis. In his mid-30s, married and with one child, he struggles to support his family in a city ravaged by years of double-digit inflation. He voted for CUD in 2005, his first vote in his lifetime. “I really thought they were going to win,” he says glumly. He settled on looking fretfully from the sidelines this year, convinced that the weakened opposition had no chance against the might (“for rigging,” he says) of the EPRDF. But as he sat in front of his 14-inch color TV a day after Election Day and listened to “the sweeping wins by the EPRDF”, regret about his failure to vote overwhelmed him. “It would have personalized the insult," he says, perhaps echoing the sentiment of millions of voters who feel that their individual votes that have been squandered. What should the opposition do, I ask him. “They ought to call a rally,’ he answers. But he envisages less people turning out than in 2005, when record number of people came out to shore up the opposition at Meskel square. “But more people will show up than the tens of thousands that turned out for the EPRDF last month,” he added emphatically. And his thoughts on what Medrek should do with its one seat in parliament? “They must boycott parliament. Most of my colleagues and friends feel the same way.” He was -- and still is -- against a similar decision by the CUD in 2005, arguing that the gains were too significant historically to be nonchalantly cast aside.

But Girma Seifu, who won the opposition’s only seat in Merkato, hub of anti-EPRDF emotion and Addis’ business nucleus, has dismissed the prospect of a boycott in rather harsh words. “Our party’s commitment to engage the political process is not contingent on the number of seats won,” he said to local media. “The people who pushed us towards parliamentary boycott in 2005 are responsible for the subsequent mayhem that damaged our party. My joining parliament is not subject to negotiation.” But Dr Negaso Gidada refused to rule out a boycott. “It’s up to the party to decide,” he said prudently. Girma went on to relent a bit in due course, no doubt tempered by the chilly reaction of party activists, and now insists that he will join parliament only if the amount of time allotted to him to speak is reasonable.

Fired with the intriguing possibility of parliamentary boycott, I pursued the idea with scores of Addis residents. Ahmed, a 21-year-old college student who aspires to be a politician someday, cast his first vote for Medrek this year. “I did it for Birtukan,” he says. There was some talk of protests on campus after the results were announced, he said. But the pressure of the approaching exams prevailed. Would he support a parliamentary boycott by Mederk? He is not sure. But with startling sophistication he explores both possibilities with me. And finally, he settles on boycott. “A complete absence of the opposition best highlights the narrowed political space,” he reasoned. Promising to discuss it further with his friends, he leaves somewhat energized by our chat. Three days later he calls: “Boycott wins. It’s 5 to 2.”

The enthusiasm for joining parliament amongst the youth is appreciably lower in Merkato, with many still speaking heatedly of the post election riots in 2005. “My child is not only dead, but he has been called a bank robber by the government,” said one mother I met in her one room home in Merkato, tears swelling in her eyes. “God will not take me before I see the day his name cleared.” The two young men who arranged the meeting nodded solemnly. Shocked by her unyielding trauma almost five years after the death of her child, I left hastily without asking the questions I had gone to ask. Both young men were in 10th grade in 2005, too young to vote. One voted this year. “I told him it was a complete waste of time,” said the one who did not vote as we sipped coffee in a neighborhood café. But both agreed that Medrek should boycott parliament when I raised the issue with them. “What could they do with one vote?” they ask.

A medical doctor who voted for Medrek is bolder: “Being part of a deceit will make an accomplice out of them.” But what should take precedence, I ask him: the conscience of Girma or the decision of the party, if Medrek is to settle on boycott but Girma remains unconvinced and still believes otherwise. For the liberal democrat conscience has precedence, he responds musingly. “Only for authoritarians is the party line more important than the conscience of the individual.”

But the issue Girma has to grapple with is much more complex than mere choice between conscience and the party line - if it comes to that eventuality. Indeed, his jibe at the leaders of CUD who were strong proponents of a boycott in 2005 reveal of a perception of politics as -- in line with a popular dictum -- “an arrt of the possible”, change coming only incrementally. The rival notion of politics, which tender stirring political parties and leaders as catalysts to overcome tyranny, is discredited as far as he is concerned. But no less significantly, this is his rendezvous with destiny. He has been abruptly catapulted from political obscurity. The next five years offer him an opportunity to construct a distinctive political identity for himself. This opening will not come again. Such thoughts will dominate his thinking in the coming months, and in fairness, particularly by the dismal moral standard of our times, one can only empathize with the impasse he will be entangled in if his personal interests collide with that of the party.

Medrek’s interest, on the other hand, is crystal clear. Clearly the majority of its supporters I spoke to want it to boycott parliament. Granted that this is no scientific survey and that serious political parties do not always accede to public opinion, the alternative is no more than the legitimatization of the status-quo and the continued momentum of a one-party state in the making. A viable opposition in the context of Ethiopia’s objective condition can not limit itself to mere electoral engagement, as is the case in normal democracies. It must out of necessity become an object of peaceful societal transformation, an agent of peaceful change. To be such a party, Medrek must boycott the parliament.

The writer, Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years in the limbo, Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: