Failing Better the 2010 Elections

By Maimire Mennasemay (Ph.D.) / February 12, 2010
Our Historical Obligation

We have a historical obligation to keep alive the spark of democracy that Ethiopians ignited in 2005, and for which many lost their lives and freedoms. Every conceivable opportunity, however bleak the circumstances may be, must be seized. Only with such persistence will the crushed democracy of 2005 be reborn stronger. One such moment is looming ahead of us: the 2010 elections. True, the TPLF/EPDRF has made it clear that it will fabricate another electoral victory. It has muzzled Ethiopians with laws, decrees, codes of conduct, and its omnipresent security forces. Nevertheless, now is not the time for pessimism, defeatism, or cynicism. On the contrary, the more the regime is determined to fabricate its victory, the more we must search for and grasp every occasion that undermines it. That’s why the 2010 elections must be exploited for every opportunity, however small it may be, to advance the cause of democracy. Not to do so, may bring solace to the cynic but it retards the advent of democracy.

Historically speaking, there is no right moment for democracy. If we wait for the right moment, democracy will never come. Indeed, waiting for the right moment will make our future the playground of dictators such as Mengestu and Meles. Are the democratic forces going to win in the 2010 elections? Given the machinations of the regime to reward itself with an electoral victory, it is very likely that the democratic forces will fail to win the elections. But they need to fail in a way that opens a bright future for democracy. In the insightful words of Samuel Beckett, the Nobel Laureate, they need “to fail better” than in 2005. “Failing better” is a historically potent way to wear down tyranny and bring about democracy. Failing better creates the objective conditions for the “morning after”—the post-election period—for swamping the regime with a tsunami of democratic demands. In light of the adversities Ethiopians face now, the historical task of the democratic forces is then to “fail better”. To achieve this requires the democratization of the 2010 elections by extending the understanding of the elections to cover the period that comes before and after it.

Democratizing the pre-2010 elections period

In a nation such as ours, with its long history, complex social relations, entangled identities, composite cultures, and multiple forms of domination and exploitation, the struggle for democracy cannot be limited to the act of voting. The pre-electoral period must be democratized by the pro-democratic forces—those who participate in the elections and those who do not. The TPLF/EPDRF regime has exploited the historical and social complexity of Ethiopian society to fragment Ethiopians religiously, ethnically, linguistically and culturally in order to create institutions that prevent the emergence of a unified opposition to it. Democratizing the pre-2010 elections period means exposing and overcoming the deeply anti-democratic political practices of the regime in ways that make possible the emergence of a shared and common ground that allows the in-gathering of the diverse democratic forces. We could consider this democratization from three interlocked perspectives: (A) Democratizing the democratic forces, (B) Democratizing the TPLF/EPDRF, (C) Democratizing as unmasking the regime.

A. Democratizing the democratic forces

One must note that if we allow the TPLF/EPDRF to define the terms and areas of political discourse, as it is trying to do with the 2008 Media Law, the 2009 Civil Society Law, the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, and the 2009 Code of Conduct, then we are cornered into playing the election game in terms of the issues defined by the regime. Consequently, the possibility of democratizing the pre-election period will be lost. We know that the regime takes all these measures not only to stifle the democratic forces but also to drive wedges among them. The question the democratic forces have to ask themselves is: If they themselves are easy victims of the TPLF/EPDRF divide-and-subjugate ploy, how could they successfully counter the TPLF/EPDRF’s use of the same ruse to dominate the Ethiopian people?

“Physician, heal thyself” is an apt remark to direct at the opposition forces. Only when they show their capacity to work together to further the cause of democracy would they be able to torpedo the regime’s effort to stifle them. Only then will they be able to demonstrate, by their example, to the Ethiopian people that it is possible to overcome the TPLF/EPDRF’s scheme of divide-and-rule. Democratizing the democratic forces then means finding a shared vision that facilitates coordinated actions among the diverse members of the democratic forces—irrespective of their decision to participate or not in the elections—to advance and bolster the democratic demands of the people. Democratizing the democratic forces also means to cultivate the courage and intelligence to practice democratic solidarity when a member of the democratic family is targeted by the regime.

B. Democratizing the TPLF/EPDR: “One cannot judge a horse by its saddle”

Moreover, democratizing the pre-2010 elections period also means democratizing the members of the TPLF/EPDRF. One of the hopeful signs for democracy is the defection of a number of important members from the TPLF/EPDRF and their decision to join the democratic forces. We need not speculate on their motives for what matters in politics are deeds. If they act in ways that facilitate the fall of the TPLF/EPDRF and the emergence of democracy, then they strengthen the democratic forces.

We need to listen here to the wisdom of an Oromo proverb: “One cannot judge a horse by its saddle”. Meles and company are in the saddle and riding the TPLF/EPDRF. This Ethiopian proverb suggests that there is “more”, much more, to the TPLF/EPDRF than the saddle of Meles and company. We must not discount the possibility that there are members of the TPLF/EPDRF who do not share the anti-Ethiopian policies of the regime. Knowing that they will be accepted by the democratic camp without being derided for their past will facilitate their passage to the side of Ethiopians. The more the democratic mole burrows under the TPF/EPDRF stockade, the more its members will consider abandoning it as a viable option, and the stronger become the forces of democracy. The democratic forces have then the obligation to encourage as many members of the TPLF/EPDRF as possible to leave the den of tyranny and join the camp of democracy.

C. Democratizing as unmasking the regime

From the perspective of the Ethiopian people, the democratization of relations within the democratic forces as well as the defection of members of the TPLF/EPDRF to the democratic camp will demonstrate that the democratic forces are a credible alternative to the Meles regime. More is however needed to unclasp the hold the TPLF/EPDRF has on the Ethiopian state.

Democratizing the period that comes before the election means using the campaign to unmask and de-legitimize the TPLF/EPDRF regime in the eyes of Ethiopians and the world. I have already dealt with this issue elsewhere. Let me simply say that the crimes committed by the TPLF/EPDRF regime are so numerous and calamitous that it boggles the democratic mind: the violation of human, civic and political rights, the state-made famine, the political use of food aid, the plunder of the state’s coffers, the arrest and imprisonment of democratic activists and politicians, the alienation of Ethiopian land, the indiscriminate slaughter of Ethiopians in the Ogaden and in Gambella, the human traffic in young Ethiopian women as cheap labour in the Middle East, the plight of Ethiopian youth, the obscene wealth gap between the ruling elites and the people, and so forth.

Since the TPLF/EPDRF regime has already de-legitimized itself by the innumerable abominations it has inflicted on Ethiopians, the democratic forces should not have much difficulty to expose why the current regime is one of the most oppressive (Human Rights Watch 2010), one of the most corrupt (Transparency International CPI Index 2009), and one of the most failed regimes on the planet (Foreign Policy, Failed States Index 2009). The regime continues making fictional claims about development despite the massive scale of famine that afflicts millions of Ethiopians year in and year out. De-legitimizing the regime by unveiling the poverty, the exploitation and domination that it tries to conceal behind election booths is what democratizing of the pre-election period consists of. The truth about the regime will make Ethiopians, including members of the TPLF/EPDRF, free, inevitably bringing the wind of democracy that will surely blow away the structures of tyranny.

“Readiness is All”: Democratizing the post-election period

We must have the courage to recognize that the magnificent democratic victory of 2005 was easily trampled upon by the TPLF/EPDRF regime because the democratic forces were not ready—organizationally, politically and ideologically—to continue their struggle for democracy the “morning after”. “Readiness is all”, says Hamlet. And indeed it is. Had the democratic forces taken the appropriate organizational, political and ideological measures in the pre-electoral period of 2005 to work together, they would have created an irresistible democratic momentum. They could have then swamped the regime in the post-electoral period with the democratic demands of the people. Because they were not ready for the post-election period, the regime was able to use its security forces to crush the democratic victory. More ominously for the future, it succeeded in fragmenting the democratic forces and in pitting them against each other.

If we do not now recognize this failure of 2005—the catastrophic absence of readiness for the post-election period—history could repeat itself. As a noted philosopher observes, when a failure takes place twice in history, the first time, it is tragedy, but the second time, it is farce. Similarly, in 2005, the failure to be ready was a tragedy. In 2010, the failure to be ready will be, however, a farce. Given the regime’s determination to fabricate an electoral victory, the likelihood that the pro-democratic parties will fail to win the elections seems a foregone conclusion. However, they have the historical obligation to “fail better” than in 2005. Democratizing the post-election period means then to translate the momentum of democratization of the pre-election period of 2010 into organizational, ideological and political readiness so that the regime comes face to face with a reality radically different from the “morning after” of the 2005 elections.

Moreover, an election does not “serve as an automatic remedy” to tyranny “as quinine works to remedy malaria”, to borrow Amartya Sen’s words. In the unlikely event that the regime concedes victory to the democratic opposition parties, such readiness will be an invaluable asset that facilitates a smooth and rapid transition to a democratic state.

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