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  • Old political tricks, new election 17 May 2015 | View comments

  • Debaters having a cup of coffee and dessert after the end of the debate. From left: Ayele Chamiso (CUD), Tedros Adhanom (PhD) (EPRDF), Woretaw Wasse (Blue) and Yilikal Getnet (Eng.) (Blue)‚Äč

    Old political tricks, new election


    No doubt election 2005 has gone down in history as one of the landmarks in the recent political life of Ethiopia. Talking of democratization and elections in general, one cannot escape but refer to the national election held exactly a decade ago.

    Of course, the highly watched televised political debate between the then political figures and the ruling party politicians was an integral part of that election; and in fact election as a whole in Ethiopia. However, like its immediate predecessor – to 2010 electoral debates – the 2015 episode seem to be lackluster, Neamin Ashenafi.

    Political parties which contested in the 2005 election held five-round of live televised debates. The debates aired uninterrupted across the country via the national television station – the then Ethiopian Television and Radio Agency (ERTA) now the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC).

    To this day, many argue that had it not been for the televised debates, election 2005 would not have seen the level of political awakening that it has seen at the time. Commentators also believe that the debates played a phenomenal role in shaping political views of the public who until then remained less enthusiastic regarding political issues.

    The then prominent opposition parties such as the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) went head-to-head with the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), throwing an enticing performance of political debating. Nothing could attest to this than the deserted streets of many cities and town in the country during the debates. Public places like cafés and bars would be packed with viewers intently following the highlight of the evening that is the political debates.

    The days in the aftermath the debates were also as busy as the evenings before where points raised during the debates would be dissected and digested again and again. It is as if the televised debate were the sole provider of agenda topics for the politically awakened electorate, who takes these heated debates to public places and even to their private living quarters. Ana Gomez, a Portuguese member of the European Union (EU) parliament and the then head of the European Union Election Observation Mission to Ethiopia, who is rather known for her strong criticisms against the Ethiopian government, described the role of the televised debate as something that encouraged people to speak up on what should be the fate of their country in the five years that was to coming after the election.  

    To the contrary, this week, the last week of the nine-week televised debates, could be seen that it could never measure up to the last days of the televised debates during 2005. A good example is the mood around town on Tuesday evening. Indeed, on Tuesday, the streets of Addis Ababa were as quiet as the last days of the campaign period in 2005. But, not for the same reason; not even close. This time around it is about a football game; an anticipated football game between FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich, for a spot at the European Champions League final, that kept residents of Addis Ababa indoors. Ironically, on the same day, some of the major political parties contesting in the upcoming election were preparing for the last-round of the televised debates which was on ‘national security and foreign policy’.

    Including the incumbent, opposition political parties such as the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum (Medrek), Semayawi Party (Blue), New Generation Party (NGP) and Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJ) and many others toiled over the course of the past nine-weeks to appear before the public with good policy proposals and political direction which were expected to crystallize through the nine or so agenda topics chosen for the debates. 

    All nine agenda topics were actually handpicked by the Joint Council of Political Parties. And yesterday saw the last of the agenda topics and also the televised debates for upcoming May 24 election. As approved by the parties, the multi party system and the process of building democracy, federalism, agricultural and rural policy, urban development and industrial policy, good governance and the rule of law, national security and foreign policy, infrastructure, education and health were the nine agenda topics that the parties discussed at length.

    However, not all parties secured a spot at all or any of the agenda topics they wish to debate on. In fact, an allotment has been made on the basis of the number of candidates that a party has fielded (40 percent), the number of seats in the parliament (40 percent), the number of women candidates the party has (10 percent), while the remaining 10 percent was equally apportioned among all the parties. So obviously, participation on the debates varied according to the specific scores a party had in reference to the criteria. The ruling part stood as one party that was able to take part in all of the nine televised political debates, followed by Medrek which take part in seven, then Blue and EDP in five and the others appearing in fewer stages.

    Medrek appeared in all but federalism and urban development and industrial policy debates offering its two cents worth on other seven agenda topics; whereas EDP was excluded from topics like multiparty system and building democracy, agricultural and rural policy, national security and foreign policy and education. Meanwhile, Blue party also faced a similar fate missing out on urban development and industrial policy, federalism and health. Although the Blue party was not supposed to take part in the first debate that was about multiparty system and building democracy, they tag along to participate in the debate due to a special invited extended to them by joint council.  

    The debates opened with the much contested agenda topic of multiparty system and building democracy in Ethiopia, on March 13. On the first agenda, EPRDF, Medrek, Blue, NGP and UDJ were the only parties which were allowed to debate and present their policy alternatives to voter; of course with exception of Blue which took part by invitation. Much to the dismay of commentators, the debates started off with no changes to what has been established as standard way of political debates in Ethiopia—the opposition parties pointing out failures of the ruling party while the later defending its actions. Of course, little come by way of offering alternatives to improve democratization in the country.

    The ruling party was represented by Redwan Husein, Minister of Government Communication Affairs Office (GCAO), and Asmelash Weldeslasie, an MP and justice and administrative affairs advisor to the prime minister, with a rank of a state minister. Medrek was represented by the veteran politician Merera Gudina (PhD), while Yilekal Getnet (Eng.) and Tigistu Awelu, presidents of Blue and UDJ parties, respectively, took the podium to articulate their parties’ positions.

    According to the veteran opposition politician Merera Gudina, for a multiparty system to really exist, several basic criteria need be in place. “First, citizens should have the opportunity to choose between two or more political alternatives; election should take place in an environment where human and democratic rights are fully respected and there should be an independent election executive body,” he said. But, he argued that none of these are fully present at the current stages. 

    The other opposition party leader, Yilikal was quite harsh on the ruling party. He argued that multiparty system is used by the EPRDF only as cosmetics to insure its cling on power. “Opposition party leaders and journalists are jailed; citizens are evicted and discriminated against on the basis of their language and culture. How can one talk of democracy in the absence of the rule of law?” Yilikal inquired.

    On the other hand, Redwan defended the stand of his party and in turn severely criticized the opposition parties for their failure to provide the voter with alternative idea than listing problems that they claim the incumbent to have. He said, “Development and democracy are two sides of the same coin for the EPRDF. It is a democracy that is centered on the people. It has been established on the consent of the people, nations and nationalities in unison where unity and diversity feeding each other”.

    Refuting opposition political parties' views, another EPRDF representative, Asmelash, on his part said that over 75 political parties are currently registered and are operating in Ethiopia, which best demonstrates the practicality of the multiparty system in the country. He also added that Ethiopia has an all-inclusive constitution that guarantees both human and democratic rights of citizens in a well-defined manner and that claims of the opposition amounts to nothing.

    Infrastructure development one of the strong holds of the ruling party specially when it comes to the international organizations was also another point of contention between incumbent and the opposition parties in the TV debates. True to form, here as well, the opposition took a strong stance in downplaying the effort of incumbent regarding rebuilding the infrastructure. Parties like EDP, Blue, Medrek, CUD and the All Oromo People's Democratic Party (AOPDP) firmly took a position on the infrastructure issue arguing that the ruling party could have done more. These parties zoomed in on the ruling party’s failure to ensure timely delivery of the infrastructure projects. Issues ranging from road construction to housing, from energy to telecom infrastructure, were all entertained by the debate. They argued considering the time span in which the party sat on power, what is achieved is nothing but negligible.

    However, representatives from the ruling party also admitted that there are some problem on the infrastructure sector and it is mainly related with the capacities of contractors, the rent seeking behavior and corruption and they said the party is committed to fight such attitudes. According to the officials, such tendencies are now public enemy number one in Ethiopia. Better than most, EDP actually offered an alternative plan regarding infrastructure in Ethiopia. The party promised to the voter public that it will see to it that six huge tourism and industrial cities with full electric power, service and other basic infrastructure facilities will be build in the coming five years if it was elected.

    On the subsequent debates, the trend of criticizing the incumbent and the usual way of EPRDF defending its decisions and actions, which has become an established feature of politics in Ethiopia, were dominant. Apart from that, in agriculture, industry and urban development policy debates exchange of criticism and counter criticism between the two parties was hugely dominant with less debate on the substantial matter. One of the criticisms raised in the debate was that EPRDF is using the land policy for its political purposes instead of benefiting the people; and Ethiopian farmers are still engaged in backward agriculture and remain dependent on seasonal rain.

    Nevertheless, EPRDF completely rejects these statements. Rather it argues that agriculture still remains to be the backbone of Ethiopian economy and that the economic boom over the last two decades—10.9 percent growth— is the results of the right agriculture and rural policy that the party is implementing. Regarding good governance, many issues were on the table both by the ruling and the opposition parties. Subsequent debates like good governance and the rule of law although not differ from the others in entertaining severe criticisms among the parties, this debate saw the only female politician in debates—Aster Mamo, Minister of the Civil Service and Coordinator of Good Governance Cluster. 

    Mekuria Haile, Minister of Urban Development, Housing and Construction was also one politician who represented the ruling party in the debate regarding urban development and industrial policy. He said, “Urban development has contributed fully to the accelerated socioeconomic development of the country. The economic progress seen over the last two decades will guarantee stronger urban local capacities in order to develop and manage urban infrastructure and services. The government has been working to provide efficient, effective and equitable infrastructure and services to urban citizens sustainably with a view to creating conducive urban environment for living and work”. On the other side, EDP’s Eyasu Mekonnen was of the view that the current urban development stage in Ethiopia is still at its infancy, and that it has not attained sustainable development at any rate. “The growth of the industrial sector was 12 percent during the previous regime. Under the current political system, however, the sector has shown only 2 percent growth in 24 years. How do we explain that?" he asked. He further argued that “as the industry and urban growth couldn't attain the expected levels, EDP will shift from rural agriculture-based economy to a more diversified and broad-based economy with much larger urban industrial and service sectors”.

    Debate on the education agenda was also another platform where know politicians like Beyene Petros (Prof.) went head-to-head with EPRDF’s high ranking officials. Beyene, who was a deputy minister of education during the transitional period, slammed the incumbent for lack of well experienced professionals in the education field, and said that, “educational institutions of the country are not run by professional educators”. It is rather individuals who are linked to the ideology of the government who are favored in the sector, Beyene argued. As a result, the quality of education is declining and failed to solve the problems of the country. 

    Minister of Education (MoE) Shiferaw Shigute, defended the policy of the incumbent and argued that the educational policy has brought about an impressive results in producing qualified professionals in many fields. He further went on to compare the figures and refute the questions and criticisms by the oppositions. Shiferaw stated that “in contrast to the two million students in the country two decades ago, there are currently over 25 million students attending classes in 4,000 schools all over the country”. Let me remind you this very policy is the one which produced skilled manpower that run many mega projects and who are working in governmental organization.  Nevertheless, Shiferaw did admit to the issue of low wages of teachers and said that his government cannot afford to pay more at this stage.   

    The overall assessment of the televised debate in Ethiopia looks to be following an established trend of criticisms and counter criticisms with less factual presentations and concrete alternatives being offered to the voter public. According to Gary Woodward, a political author, campaign is an art in itself. He says it is an art of attracting positive media attention for a candidate. But he concedes, “The task of governing is obviously very difficult and much more complex.” Therefore, it is not what the parties promise to the public that would be difficult it is rather governing and abiding to those promises made during campaign time, he concludes

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