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What are the prospects for democracy?

This paper argues that it is simplistic to make the case for democracy as though that were unproblematic in process and outcome.

The prospect of a swift and painless transition to a western-style democracy are of course zero: such a thing has happened only in dreams, and it is not useful to use perfection as a metric with which to judge the present, as it will not be possible to judge progress accurately. The better prospect is of an open public arena in which Ethiopians can engage in political debate and exercise political freedoms, without the future being dictated by either political finance or coercion.

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The next two years will be the test for Ethiopia’s democratization: will this be a managed transition to openness and pluralism, a chaotic arena of unregulated competition, or a takeover by a new political force?

The repression of the opposition and the de facto one-party system in place for the last thirteen years has been extremely unhealthy for Ethiopian democracy. Among other things, the de facto merger of the EPRDF with the state apparatus has meant that the EPRDF as a party has lost its identity. The exclusion of the opposition from legislature and executive at any level and in any location has meant that non-EPRDF politicians have not had any opportunity to learn the arts of governance.

The Ethiopian government has grossly misused its counter-terror legislation to suppress dissent and close down the public realm. Legitimate concerns over the ways in which some media whipped up ethnic animosities, and some NGOs could have become vehicles for foreign interests, led to overharsh laws, implemented in a draconian manner. This has impoverished public debate in Ethiopia: less than two years before the next election is a very short period of time to reinvigorate that debate.

Meles’s musings on a dominant party system, or a two-party system with rival developmentalist parties, are now history with limited relevance. A multi-party system is coming, with all its rough edges. Ethiopia has never had a real plural system, with coalition politics and power-sharing.

A very general lesson that can be learned from transitions from authoritarian and single party systems is this: the most sustainable transitions are those that are initiated and led by reformers within the dominant party. Attempts to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch tend to end in disappointment. Ethiopia is well-positioned for top-down reformism.

One fundamental question is, what will happen to the EPRDF? Can it survive, and indeed should it survive? What plans does PM Abiy have for the party?

Let me note three important strengths of the EPRDF. First, it has an internal system of deliberation. Its meetings are usually closed and interminable. But it does retain a tradition of discussion and argument following certain rules. Those discussions have been the only real political deliberation in Ethiopia that has some relation to the levers of power. One option for the EPRDF is to make its discussions public and to invite representatives of all other stakeholders to participate. That would be its parting gift before stepping down as the dominant party: to bring all Ethiopians into its consultations.

A second strength of the EPRDF as a party is that it has rules of procedure that meant that it can call its leaders to account, as we have seen this year. The change in national leadership was effected through a party mechanism in an orderly and peaceful manner. That is also a norm, a fundamental principle, and an institutional mechanism that should be cherished.

A third strength—shared with state bureaucracies—is institutional memory. Ethiopia is an orderly society, run on the basis of rules, institutions and established ways of doing business. Often the bureaucracy is frustratingly slow and change-averse. But the value of continuity and institutional memory should not be overlooked, especially at a time of rapid change in other spheres.

The weaknesses of the EPRDF are multiple. After more than 25 years in power, and having been folded into the state apparatus, it has atrophied. It is no longer the vigorous vanguard party that it once was. It is formally constituted as a single party. But neither is it a party organized to compete with others in a fair contest, or share power as part of a coalition. Its structure, based exclusively on national parties from different federal regions, is surely outmoded, and arguably even a recipe for conflict.

More important than structures and rules of politics are the substantive values of a society. These are changing in ways that are evident to all Ethiopians, but perhaps not well understood. Two changes are particularly noteworthy. One is the enormous rise in education: Ethiopians today are far more literate and connected than ever before. A second is that new religious affiliations are growing fast. As is to be expected, rapid social modernization leads to spirituality based on individualism and universalism, sweeping away the more hierarchical, mystical and ceremonial forms of religious practice associated with complex settled communities. Most evangelical and Pentecostal churches promote self-help and a work ethic, as do Salafis and the Muslim Brothers; they are the spiritual counterparts of a neo-liberal capitalist order. The public ethics they enjoin are appealing to many, but they may also disrupt the societal consensus that has made Ethiopia relatively orderly.

Ethiopia’s new PM is an outsider to almost all traditions of the country’s politics: he is an ethnic Oromo, from a religious movement that is new in the country, with a fresh and bold public style. He is a force for change. Ethiopia undoubtedly needs fresh thinking and action in many areas. But disruption also has its dangers, especially in a country in which the governing institutions could be disrupted with relative ease, leaving perilous gaps in the political economy, law and order, and intellectual leadership that have been so essential to Ethiopia’s recent transformations.

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