Moving Beyond Political Parties?

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By Kebour Ghenna
Ethiopia is a country in transition… full of surprises, twists, turns, and claptrap.
Last week’s meeting between ruling and opposition parties was a First. In that it was not about adding to the depressing and usual blame or finger pointing, but about how to improve the forthcoming election process by taking action that’ll work.
The whole show was refreshing; still there was not much to write home about in terms of new ideas that is, except for the oppositions’ comical demand for the PM to help consolidate eighty or so opposition parties into three or four groups…
Imagine Trump being asked by democrats to help them be ruthless on fixing voting!
What’s wrong with these opposition ‘leaders’? We thought they were smarter. And more cunning!
Have they forgotten that politics, at least until recently, is mostly a win-lose, smash-and-grab enterprise.
In the real world, opposition parties assume their role and responsibilities. If all Ethiopia’s opposition can do is to just ask the ruling party’s chief to organize them (and not to let them organize), they might need to consider a career change.
A sensible opposition would have asked the PM to invite and encourage citizens to personally engage by investing both their time and resources – and by mobilizing those around them.
A sensible opposition would have asked the PM to seek electoral reforms that reflect the twin pressures of representation and effectiveness, perhaps changes in formula in the direction of proportional representation to favor broader representation, but higher thresholds to ensure effectiveness, thereby making it more challenging to enter into parliament.
A sensible opposition would have debated on what it takes to better align the political system with the public interest and make progress on the nation’s problems. And, which of the many political reform and innovation ideas floating around would actually alter the trajectory of the system.
The problem is not EPRDF or EDL or CUD or the existence of 80 or so parties per se. The problem is not individual politicians; most who seek and hold public office are genuinely seeking to make a positive contribution. The real problem is the nature of competition in the political space.
If you are a politician… or preparing to be one… or just someone who is interested in how the world works, listen up. In many Western countries, party structures are dissolving, traditional political organizations are disintegrating (France, Italy, US), being swept away by new movements.
Today Elections matter a whole lot less than we think.
There are always some smart people able to manipulate, control, and subvert the government and use its power to get what they want…Money. Power. Status.
There is nothing underhanded about it. Nothing sinister or surprising.
The subversion takes place right out in the open.
That’s why the PM and the opposition parties should go beyond electoral politics and reflect on how to deal with the coming evolving pattern, where traditional political structures are breaking up, liquefying political systems, where people are becoming more important than parties, and positioning seems more relevant than policies. So, we say that unless trust is restored in political parties, unless there is more reflection on the tools that our democracies use, we believe the country will sail in the wrong direction.
Into disgrace … and chaos, that is.
Dear readers, we are moving towards a new era of government, where technological innovations and changes in society’s fabric create new channels to form people’s will and demands. All around the world established systems of government are more and more questioned. Elections, in their current form, are increasingly failing to convert the collective will of the people into governments and policies.
The problem is not Democracy. Voting is the problem. Where is the rational voice of the people in all this? Where do citizens obtain the best possible information, engage with each other and decide collectively upon their future? Where do citizens get a chance to shape the fate of their communities? Not in the voting booth, for sure.
To make a long story short, here in Ethiopia we need institutions that minimize not exaggerate our differences, and lock our representatives into rigid ideological camps. There was recently a rather trendy suggestion to redefine the traditional culture of ‘Opposition” politics, where government confronts opposition parties, by a rather less adversarial culture using the Amharic term “Tefokakari” translated as “Competitor”, not much of a difference there… Perhaps the right culture to adopt would have been ‘Consenciational [?]’ or “Tewaway” or “Tebabari” which many coalition groups in many parts of the world appear to embody: a culture of governing together.
If we’re building a new Ethiopia, if we’re constructing tomorrow’s Ethiopia, our political institutions have to be updated to promote effective deliberation of issues and selfless identification with the national interest. We need to stop reducing democracy to voting, we need to change procedures, we need to avoid political turmoil and instability by rejecting what are now arcane features of western democracy.
The system of delegation to an elected representative may have been necessary in the past – when communication was slow and information was limited – but today technology has completely revolutionized the way citizens interact with each other. Even in the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had already observed that elections alone were no guarantee of liberty: “The people of England deceive themselves when they fancy they are free; they are so, in fact, only during the election of members of parliament: for, as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains, and are nothing.”
No one can say with confidence whether the coming election will be any different. But at least the PM has issued a challenge to his fellow political adversaries to come forward with ideas to manage Ethiopia’s diversity!
Feel free to contribute.