The 24 May election was worse than a sham. In turning the poll into a process of complete elimination of the opposition, the government and the ruling party have loudly told the Ethiopian people that any hope of change through peaceful means is just an illusion.
According to the National Election Board of Ethiopia, the result of last week’s national election is that the EPRDF (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front) has achieved a complete victory by grabbing all the parliamentary seats. The same board and the Ethiopian government qualified the result as a triumph of democracy, which leads one to assume that in today’s Ethiopia the progress of democracy is measured by the size of exclusion of opposition parties from parliamentary participation. In 1995, the process resulted in 75 seats to various opposition parties; then it evolved to one representative in 2010; until it has reached the present stage of advanced democracy with zero representative from the opposition. Bravo to the EPRDF! Be it noted that this novel interpretation of democracy seems to be endorsed by the American government through the authoritative voice of Wendy Sherman, the Under Secretary for Political Affairs (go to http://www.diretube.com/ethiopia/under-secretary-of-state-wendy-sherman-talking-about-ethiopia-video_851c48f3b.html) The only step remaining to achieve the apex of democracy is the banning of opposition parties, obvious as it is that they have become obsolete.
On a serious note, last week’s election appears very enigmatic to many observers. For one thing, in view of the creeping discontent in the country, which is even expressed outwardly here and there, in view also of the paranoia of the regime showing an unprecedented level of mobilization of its repressive forces to intimidate voters and stifle dissenting voices, a complete parliamentary victory strikes by its utter impossibility. There is only one possible conclusion: not only the election was not free and fair, but it was also subjected to fraudulent practices, such as stealing or eliminating votes supporting the opposition.
The question that comes to mind is the following: if neither the people and opposition parties give an iota of credibility to the official result, nor for that matter the officials and the cadres of the ruling party themselves––since they used all repressive and fraudulent means to eliminate the opposition––in a word, if nobody lends any credibility to the official outcome, why is the ruling party going through such a costly, time-consuming, and utterly useless exercise? What is the expected gain?
Can we say that the election serves the purpose of renewing legitimacy? But how can a government renew legitimacy by claiming an unbelievable victory? Who falls for a score of 100 percent? What about the international community? Perhaps, but again provided that you come up with something believable, and 100 percent is not believable. Accordingly, such a score defeats its purpose, if it is legitimacy.
This is what is most perplexing: a lesser score (say, for example, of 80 percent) would have gained some credibility without, however, endangering the hegemony of the ruling party. Indeed, why not leave some seats to the opposition? So long as the ruling party retains an overwhelming majority, the opposition does not present any risk. What is more, the presence of the opposition, however negligible, would give some sense to the voting process in the parliament.
There is more: in turning the election into a process of elimination of the opposition by all means necessary, the government and the ruling party are loudly telling the Ethiopian people that any hope of change through peaceful means is just an illusion. This is none other than forcing the people to seek other means, namely, violent forms of struggle, such as uprisings and armed struggle. It is hard to understand why a government would push its own people to violent methods.
If, instead of renewing legitimacy, a score of 100 percent only succeeds in cornering people to violent means, why on earth would a government adopt such a detrimental policy? We only saw negative sides. Where is the gain? The huge enigma here is that, unlike most dictatorial states, the regime in Ethiopia has recognized multiple opposition parties, even if it has restricted their activities to what it deems tolerable. While the general rule for dictatorial regimes is to ban opposition parties altogether, the Ethiopian regime recognizes them except that it does not want them in parliament. Since in both cases the result is the same, the behavior of the Ethiopian regime may become intelligible if we get hold of the reason why even dictatorial regimes that ban opposition parties organize elections.
Where no opposition parties exist, the purpose of election cannot be the achievement of victory. As there is no contest, the claim of victory would be simply surreal. By contrast, single-party regimes are concerned with the number of people who come out to vote, the issue being to get out the maximum number of voters by all means necessary. Clearly, the objective is not to gain the majority of votes; rather, it is to demonstrate force. Elections are meant to show the extent of the control of the government and the ruling party over the people. The less the people like the regime, the higher is its need to show the maximum electoral score, thereby displaying its invincibility. The message is then clear enough: even if you do not like the regime, there is nothing you can do about it. As such, it is a celebration of defiance, a parade, a showoff of political force.
It seems to me that the dominant party in the governmental coalition, the TPLF (Tigrayan People's Liberation Front), has perfected the meaning of election under dictatorial rule: unlike one-party dictatorships, it recognizes opposition parties, allows them some freedom of maneuver, only to deprive them of even one seat in the parliament as a manifestation of its absolute hegemony. This is none other than an extreme form of political bullying, as in the case when a child donates his toy to another child and takes it back after some time as a way of showing his dominance by aggravating the frustration of the other child.
The ultimate goal of this political bullying is, of course, the inculcation of submission through the sense of hopelessness. While in democratic countries, elections establish the legitimacy of states through the exercise of popular sovereignty, in dictatorial regimes, like that of the TPLF, they are periodical rituals displaying the submission of the people. To the extent that these elections raise and then dash hopes for change, they renew the sense of hopelessness of the people, and so deepen their resignation.
* Messay Kebede is professor of philosophy at the University of Dayton, Ohio (USA). He previously taught philosophy at Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia). He is the author of five books: Meaning and Development (1994), Survival and Modernization—Ethiopia’s Enigmatic Present (1999), Africa’s Quest for a Philosophy of Decolonization (2004), Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia, 1960-1974 (2008), and Ideology and Elite Conflicts: Autopsy of the Ethiopian Revolution (2011). He has also published numerous articles in professional and nonprofessional journals.
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