Elections are about determining the will of the people as well as choosing representatives who embody this will and ensure that the government genuinely reflects it and promotes the common good. To make elections meet this goal requires public reasoning and deliberation on national questions and issues - the needs of the people, past government actions and failures, unfulfilled promises, future projects and policies, and, indeed, the kind of society in which the people would prefer to live - so that the electorate is fully informed and knows for what it votes. Such discussions do not take place in a vacuum. Every election takes place within a frame of reference that circumscribes the range, interpretation, meaning and nature of the questions and issues to be raised and discussed during the election campaign. In democratic societies, freedom of speech and association, the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the independence of the office that overlooks elections, the respect for human, civil and political rights, the neutrality of the security services and the armed forces, are already an integral part of the political system and thus of the electoral frame of reference. But such is not the case in TPLF/EPDRF dominated Ethiopia.
The TPLF/EPDRF is currently imposing, as it has always done since its capture of state power, a frame of reference that limits the 2010 elections to the issues and questions that allow the regime to give itself a democratic façade while totally controlling the electoral process. The main elements of the frame of reference that the regime is imposing on the 2010 elections are, inter alia,: the 2008 Media Law that muzzles the press; the 2009 Civil Society Law that makes it impossible to monitor or conduct activities related to “human rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, or good governance.” (Human Rights Watch 2010); the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation that paints as terrorism acts that challenge the injustices and the arbitrary and authoritative actions of the regime; and finally the 2009 Code of Conduct that tries to exclude from discussion the issues of separation of powers, human, civic and political rights, independent judiciary, free media, and so forth, by deceitfully occluding these as already accomplished achievements. No wonder that the 2010 Human Rights Watch Report observes that “As Ethiopia heads toward nationwide elections, the government continues to clamp down on the already limited space for dissent or independent political activity.”
It is not surprising then that many Ethiopians ask themselves on the usefulness of participating in an election whose outcome is already sealed and delivered. But is the election really lost for the democratic opposition? I don’t think so. It all depends on what we mean by elections, for, as I will argue below, Ethiopians are in fact faced with two elections within the 2010 elections. It is possible to envisage the 2010 elections as confrontations between two different ways of conceiving elections: the TPLF/EPDRF conception of election as a machine for appropriating seats in “elected” assemblies versus elections as conceived by the democratic forces - as an activity of listening to the electorate, of deliberating with the electorate and giving voice to its needs, aspirations and demands. Both sides could win the elections, each in terms of its own frame of reference. But one of these victories will be only numerical and thus ephemeral, while the other will have a transformative impact on Ethiopian society. In order to see how two victories are possible within the same election, and why they have differing consequences, we need to step back from the present and see what the lessons are from the past elections organized by the TPLF/EPDRF regime.
“It is not the people who vote that count…”
The TPLF/EPDRF regime has an understanding of elections typical of dictatorial regimes. In all the elections it has organized since it came to power, be they at the kebelle, woreda, or national level, the regime has shown a pathological obsession with numbers. It has mobilized the instruments and resources of the sate to blackmail, corrupt, intimidate, and even eliminate opposition candidates that threaten to win seats. It has stuffed ballot boxes, threatened and manipulated voters to support it, and used various deceitful measures to gain seats. In all cases, what is obvious is the regime’s total contempt for the autonomy and dignity of voters and its obsession with having an absolute numerical superiority in elected assemblies, no matter what the vote.
This obsession with winning seats exploded publicly in 2005. Faced with a crushing electoral defeat at the polls, the government controlled National Election Board declared the TPLF/EPDRF the winner before even most of the votes were counted. This decision publicly destroyed the integrity of the electoral process; but the regime was intent on having its absolute majority of seats and was not going to let democracy stand in the way. In the regime’s obsession with hoarding seats in elected assemblies, we witness the congenital presence of the Stalinist roots of the TPLF. What counts for the Meles regime is not the act of voting but rather the act of counting the vote. To quote Stalin, one of the ideological heroes of Meles, “It's not the people who vote that count. It's the people who count the votes." Right from its conquest of power, the Meles regime has used this Stalinist idea as its working principle for conducting elections. Thus, the TPLF/EPDRF regime uses elections as a mechanism for shutting out the voice of the people so that the ruling party, with its absolute majority in every elected assembly, could pursue with impunity its policy of oppressing, dividing, and plundering the Ethiopian people.
The result is there to see for everybody. Under the present regime, Ethiopia has become one of the most failed states in the world (Foreign Policy, Failed States Index 2009). Indeed, its failure as a state is intensifying. Since 2006, when it already had the high failure score of 91.9, the failure of the Ethiopian state has been deepening from year to year. Its current score is 98.9. And yet, the TPLF/EPDRF regime has organized more elections than any other previous regime, and in every election it has garnered an absolute majority of seats. The truth is: the more elections the TPLF/EPDRF wins, the poorer and more oppressed Ethiopians become.
Why haven’t these repeated elections brought some respite to Ethiopians? The answer lies in the regime’s concept and practice of elections. The regime uses elections to listen to itself and to evacuate the people’s voice. It treats the electorate as an aggregate of numbers to be divvied up and served to the TPLF/EPDRF candidates on an electoral platter. It is precisely this practice that is the bacillus that is putrefying the regime from within and is increasingly making it a failed state. What the democratic forces need to do is occupy fully the field of the vox populi - the people’s voice - that the TPLF/EPRDF has contempt for and has abandoned. Thus, two competing conceptions of elections could thus concurrently operate in the 2010 elections: one which puts the emphasis on counting the votes; the other which puts the emphasis on listening to those who vote. The democratic forces could bring about such a situation. But how?
The Alternative: Gaining the Trust of the People
It is precisely by putting the emphasis on listening to the sufferings, hopes, aspirations and demands of Ethiopians that the democratic forces introduce an alternative frame of reference for the elections. In listening to what the Ethiopian people have to say about their present conditions and the alternative future they aspire to, the democratic forces could demonstrate that they respect the Ethiopian people and recognize their dignity as citizens. By becoming the voice of the people’s aspirations and demands, the democratic forces will demonstrate their commitment to the welfare of Ethiopians and their desire for peace, justice and prosperity. But all this is possible only and only if Ethiopians have trust in those who claim to stand for democracy. And this trust could be gained only and only if Ethiopians see that the members of the democratic forces care about the welfare of Ethiopians seriously enough to desist from attacking each other, even when they have differences, and mobilize their intelligence and energy to expose the regime’s failures and crimes. No one wants to live in a crumbling house. Ethiopians will not put their trust, understandably so, in opposition parties that claim to stand for the democratic aspirations of Ethiopians but spend their time tearing each other down.
If the democratic forces put the interests of Ethiopians above their party interests, then Ethiopians will recognize them as authentic embodiments of their needs, hopes and aspirations. And the democratic opposition could thus make its campaign based on its own frame of reference: the Ethiopian people’s inalienable rights for a decent life, free from political oppression, economic deprivation, social injustice (poverty, disease, lack of education, and so forth), ethnic conflicts, and addiction to foreign aid. That is, the democratic opposition confronts the TPLF/EPDRF’s anti-democratic conception of election with a democratic alternative.
Winning Hearts and the Morning After
One may ask what the advantage is of considering the 2010 elections as made up of two elections, for, given the regime’s anti-democratic use of elections, there seems to be little doubt that the regime will use force and fraud to garner an absolute majority of seats. True. But the opposition’s democratic conception of elections and the frame of reference that guides the conduct of the democratic forces will win the opposition the trust and support of the electorate. The regime “wins” the seats; but the opposition wins the hearts of Ethiopians. That is to say, the regime wins the election, but it losses its legitimacy; the mantle of legitimacy passes over to the democratic opposition.
One may demur that since the TPLF/EPDRF controls the security and armed forces and has at is disposal all the resources of the state, the loss of legitimacy will not carry much weight in reality. But this objection misses the real goal of the election from the perspective of the frame of reference that guides and articulates the campaign of the democratic opposition. The goal is not to win the election, since the TPLF/EPDRF’s Stalinist principle of how to conduct elections excludes the very possibility of the regime loosing the elections. The goal is to prepare a completely new historical chapter that opens the “Morning After” the election and to exploit the illegitimacy that will afflict the regime in order to make it leave power in as a peaceful manner as possible.
The twenty first century has given us two political innovations. Tyrants have innovated and perfected the use of elections as mechanisms for maintaining themselves in power as “elected” dictators. But the people also have innovated. They let the dictators “win” the elections. But the “Morning After”, they let these “elected” dictators know that though they have “won” the seats of parliament, they have not won the legitimacy to rule and that they must decamp. The “Morning After” is the great democratic innovation of the twenty first century against elective dictatorships. It has successfully evicted “elected” dictators in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003) Ukraine (2004), Kyrgyzstan (2005) and replaced them by those who have won the hearts of the people.
So, in May 2010, the TPLF/EPDRF will win its majority of seats in parliament. But, if all the members of the Ethiopian democratic family - those who participate in the election and those who don’t, those within the country and those outside - pull together to win the trust and confidence of the electorate, Ethiopia could also have its democratic “Morning After” in 2010.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com.