Why Ethiopia needs a strong incumbent political party in the transition to democracy

By Girmachew Alemu, For Addis Standard

Between revolution and continuity

Addis Abeba, December 03/2019 – Ethiopia is going through a political transition to democracy that began under the incumbent Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four ethnic-based political groups that ruled the country since 1991.  Despite its authoritarian past, the EPRDF initially committed itself to transition to democracy that is open to all opposition political parties. After a few months into the transition, the ruling EPRDF fractured following serious political differences between leaders of the party who support democratic reforms and those who want to retain the status quo.

On November 22, 2019, the chairman of the EPRDF, Pm Abiy Ahmed, announced the decision to merge three of the four members of the EPRDF coalition to establish a new national incumbent successor political party named Prosperity Party.  Other hitherto independent regional parties are also expected to join the Prosperity Party (incumbent successor party). This commentary reflects on why the birth of the new incumbent successor party is a step forward in the transition to democracy and highlights three major issues (ethnicity, dealing with the past, and personal rule) that are crucial for the strength and stability of the new party.

Party and party system institutionalization

Ethiopia’s leaders pledged, among other reforms, free and fair multiparty elections in May 2020. Yet, the country is home to highly fragmented, volatile and weak political parties and party system marked by lack of party cohesion, high regional fragmentation, weak financial resources, and clientelism.[1]  Over the years, the ruling EPRDF engendered the weak institutionalization of opposition political parties through direct repression and indirect pressure such as inducing internal rivalry, and monopoly over state institutions including the media.

The weak party
institutionalization has in turn resulted in a weak party system institutionalization
which negatively affected the ability of opposition political parties to forge
strong alliances, connect and establish stable linkage with voters, shape and
mediate mass political negotiations, and
be strong contenders against the ruling party.[2] Also,
the EPRDF’s failure to go
through the transition to democracy in one piece and the political wrangling
between its leaders has exacerbated the volatility and fragmentation of the
party system and weakened the transition to democracy.

The formation of
the new Prosperity Party committed to transition to democracy is an opportunity
to reduce the volatility and fragmentation of the party system.  The crucial role of an incumbent successor
party such as the Prosperity Party in democratic transition may sound counterintuitive
especially because of its authoritarian past and continued dominance of the
political space. Yet, those are the qualities that make an incumbent successor
party instrumental in pushing for high party system institutionalization and
competitive electoral democracy.[3]

In the transition
to democracy, the incumbent successor party will apply its capacity, resources,
networks, and dominant status inherited from its authoritarian past to win democratic
elections. The process will have the incumbent shaping and controlling the rules
and institutions of democracy including party registration and competition,
electoral and democratic institutions with what Riedl calls the ‘unintended
consequences’ of pushing opposition political parties to have cohesion and
stronger alliance even when the rules and institutions are favorable to the

Also, a strong
incumbent successor party in Ethiopia is highly likely to produce robust
short-term and long-term policies, programs and plans. Such clarity will help
opposition parties to forge a strong anti-incumbent cleavage and come up with
solid policy and program alternative for voters and their constituencies.  The absence of agitation of voters and
constituencies by opposition political parties for the May 2020 general elections
left with only six months shows, among other things, the confusion over the
incumbent strategy and the extreme volatility and fragmentation of the party

Parties representing regional states of Somali, Afar, Harari, Benishagul Gumuz and Gambella have joined Prosperity Party, signaling the opening of the national political space to a large number of citizens who were effectively marginalized by the discriminatory political set up of the EPRDF that limited membership to ethnic groups represented in the coalition. Such move will enable the Prosperity Party to mobilize large number of voters and constituencies across the country. The broad base of the Party will contribute to the stability of the party system by bringing smaller regional parties to a common negotiation forum. Moreover, the policy will likely push opposition political parties to form strong alliances against the incumbent thereby reducing the fragmentation and volatility of the party system.

Ethnicity and Pluralism

EPRDF has recognized the ethnic and religious
diversity in the country. The accommodation of ethnic and religious pluralism
is a constructive policy that should be maintained by the Prosperity Party.
EPRDF has also directly and indirectly encouraged the formation of ethnic
political parties, a policy that should be rejected by the Prosperity Party for
many reasons.  To begin with, a party
system dominated by ethnic parties
like ours is not compatible with the idea of accommodation of pluralism
and democracy. Ethnic parties are rigid because they ‘derive their support from
an identifiable ethnic group and serve the interests of that group’.[5]  As such, ethnic parties exclude those who
cannot identify with the ethnic group they claim to represent.  In a multi-ethnic country like Ethiopia, the
proliferation of ethnic parties created ‘several one-party ethnic states’
generating an extremely fragmented and fragile party system.[6]  Also, ethnic parties offer little or no policy
choice for voters that belong to the ethnic groups they claim to represent. Studies show that in a party
system dominated by ethnic political parties, citizens ‘feel that they are
trapped in ethnic-party zones and that they lack the freedom to form and choose
parties other than the one or two parties who claim to represent their ethnic
groups.’[7]  In effect ethnic communities become hostage
to the whims of ethnic elites who obstruct political mobilization and alliances
on grounds that are common to all communities in the country.

Another strong
policy reason for the Prosperity Party to tone down ethnicity as a tool of mobilization
is its extreme politicization that went on for the last several years. It has
become common to hear ethnic political parties accusing each other of
‘anti-x-people’ policies and actions. Semantics aside, it is now clear that the
EPRDF led politicization of ethnicity has eventually created numerous highly
fragmented and volatile ethnic political parties that are bent on dragging communities
that lived peacefully for generations into violence.

Granted, ethnicity will continue to be a strong tool of political mobilization in Ethiopia as in most agrarian societies.  Nonetheless, the Prosperity Party has an opportunity to set a new tone on the basis of an ideology of tolerance and mobilize voters and constituencies across a set of diverse issues and interests including class, gender, economic, social, and ethnic cleavages. The strategy will enable the party to be a ‘bridging’ and negotiation forum for diverse set of voters and constituencies including the youth, civic groups and ethnic groups. [8] In the long run, the policy will induce opposition parties to come up with equally robust and meaningful policy alternatives rather than focus and capitalize on ethnic differences among communities.

Dealing with the legacy of the past

The EPRDF party
brand has collapsed. Paradoxically, the strength and weakness of the Prosperity
Party is closely linked with the legacy of the EPRDF.  The Prosperity Party draws strength from its
inheritance of, among others, the financial and human resources, mass networks,
and political, economic, and social achievements of the EPRDF.  Conversely, the Party carries what Loxton calls
‘authoritarian baggage’ from the past such as human rights violations, high-level
corruption, massive financial mismanagement and other undemocratic practices
and policy failures of the EPRDF.[9]  Loxton identifies four strategies of dealing
with ‘authoritarian baggage’ by new incumbent successor parties in the context
of transition to democracy: contrition, obfuscation, scapegoating, and
embracing the past.[10]

Contrition involves
a process of breaking with the past through acts such as the admission of wrong
policies and actions of the past, opening up the political space, and renaming
and restructuring the incumbent party. Obfuscation is denying the connection of
the successor party with the failures of the past while scapegoating is blaming
a few top leaders of the old authoritarian party for all failures and
violations. Embracing the past is a strategy that accepts and celebrates all
acts and policies of the authoritarian past.

The current government
has taken steps that are meant to open up the political space in the transition
to democracy. For instance, several political prisoners were released. Numerous
opposition political parties are allowed to operate in the country. In his June
2018 speech to the parliament, the current Prime Minster and chairman of the
EPRDF made a rare and historic admission of the massive human rights violations
that were carried out under the EPRDF. Also, the process of establishing the
Prosperity Party can be taken as part of a strategy of breaking with the past. Nonetheless,
these actions on their own do not forestall authoritarian regression. They are
rather first steps in a long and arduous road in the transition to democracy.

The Prosperity Party
should adopt a forward-looking strategy that openly rejects the excesses of the
past and, more importantly, guarantees non-repetition in the future. There are
many challenging issues that swing between inheritance and authoritarian
baggage for the Prosperity Party. For instance, while it is beneficial to
inherit the EPRDF mass base of members and cadres, it requires a lot of work to
orient and align them with democratic and rule based political processes and
behavior. Similarly, setting accountable party administration and building
processes such as transparency on party ownership of economic institutions, and
the state-party relation are challenges of the new Party.

Personal Rule

Personal rule is
an elitist governance system run by a strong man ruler and a handful powerful politicians.
Personal rule can stand on its own or can run through a network of institutions
including political parties loyal to the ruler.[11]  Personal rule weakens political parties by
making them subservient to the whims of a few politicians. Political parties
under personal rule are not only inefficient and corrupt but are also threats
to the party system and the consolidation of democracy. Personal rule is one of
the authoritarian legacies of the EPRDF that should be rejected by the
Prosperity Party.  The Prosperity Party can
curb personal rule by using mechanisms that limit the power of political
leaders internally and externally.

Internally, political
leaders should be committed to the objectives and programs of the Party.

In the words of
Bizzarro et al. ‘constraints on
leaders stem from the process of leadership selection, which in a strong party
favors individuals with a demonstrated commitment to the party, usually those
who have risen through the ranks.’[12]  Strong political parties select and socialize leaders
on a basis of a succession plan that takes into account, among other factors, capacity,
levels of responsibility, and generational time frames.  Also, the tenure of leaders in strong parties
is limited. Political parties with strong leadership framework are instrumental
in checking executive power even in the absence of constitutional limitations.[13]

Externally, the
power of political leaders is limited by the objectives and programs of other
competitive strong parties within the party system. At different junctions of
the transition to democracy, leaders of the Prosperity Party are expected to negotiate
with opposition political parties and their supporters to avoid polarization of
voters and the wider society. Such negotiations would ideally end up in
political compromise that should be observed by parties and their leaders. Moreover,
externally, party leaders are also constrained by the commitments and promises
they make to voters and their constituencies. Strong parties specify consequences
for party leaders who fail to meet the commitments made to voters and

Editor’s Note: Girmachew Alemu is Associate Professor, School of Law, Addis Abeba University (AAU). He can be reached at ganeme@gmail.com



[1] See Asnake
Kefale (2011), ‘The (un)making of opposition coalitions and the challenge of
democratization in Ethiopia, 1991–2011’, Journal
of Eastern African Studies
, 5:4, 681-701.

[2] See
Mainwaring, Fernando Bizzarro, and Ana Petrova, ‘Party
System Institutionalization, Decay, and Collapse’ in
Scott Mainwaring (ed.),
Party Systems in Latin America: Institutionalization, Decay, and Collapse (2018, Cambridge University Press) on
party system institutionalization.

[3] See Rachel Beatty Riedl, Authoritarian Origins of Democratic Party
Systems in Africa
, (Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.1-5.

[4] Ibid, p.1.

[5] Pippa
Norris and Robert Mattes, ‘Does Ethnicity Determine Support for the Governing
Party? The Structural and Attitudinal Basis of Partisan Identification in 12
African Nations’, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Faculty
Research Working Papers Series, RWP03-009, February 2003, p.5.

[6] Robert A. Dowd, and Michael Driessen, ‘Ethnically
Dominated Party Systems and the Quality of Democracy: Evidence from Sub-Saharan
Africa’ Afrobarometer, Working Paper No. 92, 2008, p.15

[7] Ibid.

[8] Pippa
Norris and Robert Mattes, ‘Does Ethnicity Determine Support for the Governing
Party? The Structural and Attitudinal Basis of Partisan Identification in 12
African Nations’, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Faculty
Research Working Papers Series, RWP03-009, February 2003, p.5.

[9] James Loxton,
‘Authoritarian Successor Parties Worldwide: A Framework for Analysis’, Kellogg
Institute for International Studies, Working Paper # 411, June 2016, pp 16-17.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Jackson, Robert H. and Carl
G. Rosberg, ‘Personal Rule: Theory and Practice in Africa’, 1984, 16(4) Comparative Politics, pp.423-424; Mehran
Kamrava, Politics and Society in the
Third World
 (Routledge, New York, 1993), p.18.

[12] Fernando Bizzarro et al, ‘Party Strength and Economic Growth’, World Politics, 1-46, 2018, p.6.

[13] Ibid, pp.6-7.

[14] See Gustavo A. Flores-Macías, ‘The Macroeconomic Consequences of PSI’,
in Scott Mainwaring (Ed.), Party Systems in Latin America: Institutionalization,
Decay, and Collapse
 (Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 408-425.

The post Opinion: Why Ethiopia needs a strong incumbent political party in the transition to democracy appeared first on Addis Standard.


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