What do you expect from the coming elections in Ethiopia?

By Messay Kebede

Articles fulminating against Hailu Shawel’s signing of the code of conduct proliferate on Ethiopian websites. For these articles, the unilateral and hasty agreement with Meles while other opposition groups, such as Medrek, are still in contention about some important issues, constitutes nothing less than betrayal on Hailu’s part. This act of sabotage suggests, according to some articles, a prior agreement with the Meles regime promising Hailu a post in the future government in exchange for his contribution in dividing and weakening the opposition.

I am not yet ready to endorse this kind of analysis, though I admit that the agreement looks fishy indeed. I also wonder why those who used to oppose Hailu’s leadership of the AEUO are surprised at the “betrayal”: not only they should have expected his reversal, but also they should have seen it as a blessing in disguise finally precipitating his discredit among his own followers. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that the agreement rests on a common interest: as it stands, it keeps Birtukan in jail to the delight of the EPRDF, Hailu, and his cronies; it also handicaps the rising multinational opposition known as Medrek.

Rather than adding to the general consternation, I would like to express my surprise at the ferocity of the criticisms, as it seems to reveal an expectation that I thought people had put behind them once and for all. To give a huge importance to negotiations with Meles strikes me as a naïve attitude. If anything, the reversal of the 2005 elections, the violent crackdown of protesters, and the imprisonment of the leaders of Kinjit have underscored the futility of reaching agreement with the present regime. So long as an autonomous power able to enforce mutually agreed documents is not in place, negotiations mean nothing. Those who blame Hailu Shawel seem to say that a fair and just election is possible in Ethiopia provided that the correct agreement is reached. In other words, it is hoped that tough negotiations will force Meles to respect the agreement. Is there an Ethiopian of sane mind really ready to give Meles such a vote of confidence?

The only broker that could have forced Meles to stick to the agreement is the international community. That is why some commentators argue that the signing of the code of conduct removed the possibility of obtaining more concessions in the direction of fair election from Meles through the pressure of the international community, not to mention the fact that said agreement with a major opposition group provides him with some “democratic” respectability.

I find the argument weak. The 2005 elections have taught us that the international community is unwilling to accompany its verbal condemnations with concrete punitive measures. Meles know this more than anybody else, especially now that the American administration seems again reluctant to add deeds to words. As to the democratic appearance that Meles might put on, I don’t think that Western governments are so gullible that they will fail to see that the agreement is yet another maneuver to divide and cripple the opposition.

Does this mean that the best option is not to participate in elections that we know are but fake? Such a conclusion would miss that elections have their own dynamics that even the most repressive regimes cannot totally control. They create events that lead to unforeseen outcomes, as witnessed by the 2005 elections and the recent Iranian elections. Moreover, fake elections generate deep frustrations that compel people to look for alternative forms of expression, perhaps even to show their discontent through non-cooperative forms of resistance, such as strikes and demonstrations.

My position is thus the following: let us continue to play the game of elections, but without creating the illusion that something decisive that would have brought victory was jeopardized by Hailu’s “betrayal.” Such an implication entertains the illusory hope that fair elections are possible under the TPLF. Instead, the elections should serve us to emphasize the extent to which the TPLF government does not even respect its own constitution. For, negotiations would have been unnecessary if the constitution had any force of law. Repeated exposures of the regime’s inconsistencies can convince people to try alternative means so as to have their voice respected.

One thing is clear: everything depends on the goal that each opposition party sets to itself. If an opposition party targets the toppling of the TPLF, then I understand that it sees negotiations as a means of creating the optimal condition for its success. Unfortunately, such a goal is unrealistic: assuming that victory is still possible, it will only lead to a repeat of the 2005 crackdown. By contrast, if an opposition party pursues the modest goals of increasing its seats in the parliament and becoming an opposing partner of the government rather than an expeller standing outside it, I understand that such a party sees negotiations with the TPLF from a different angle. This political option looks more realistic: it is based on a long-term strategy of being part of the government that it means to influence while strengthening the party and removing insecurity from those who now control power in the case of a loss of majority in the distant future.

I am not suggesting that Hailu Shawel has opted for the long-term strategy for the simple reason that I have no information concerning his motives. I raise the issue because I want us to be clear about our expectations. Put otherwise, when opposition parties decide to participate in elections, they must tell us clearly what their objectives are. If, under the present conditions, their main objective is to oust the TPLF government by winning the majority of votes, I tell them that they are obviously using the wrong method, and so should adjust the means to the end by, for instance, embracing armed struggle. Hence my question to those who castigate Hailu Shawel: What do you expect from the coming elections?

(The author can be reached at [email protected])