The winner shall not take it all: Proposals for electoral reform to ensure inclusive political representation in Ethiopia

By Adem Kassie Abebe, 29 September 2015
Voters queue to cast their votes in Ethiopia's 2015 general election (photo credit: Associated Press)
Voters queue to cast their votes in Ethiopia's 2015 general election (photo credit: Associated Press)

Ethiopia’s 2015 general elections brought about an astounding 100% victory for the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and stripped the opposition of its single parliamentary seat. The latest warning sign of the questionable legitimacy of the Ethiopian constitution, the EPRDF domination at the expense of political inclusivity and democracy highlights the need for electoral reform in a multi-ethnic society that continues to rely solely on the first-past-the-post electoral system.

The Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the fourth written constitution in Ethiopia’s history, has just turned twenty. It has been in effect since August 1995. The Constitution was drafted under the chief, if not the sole, tutelage of the EPRDF - a coalition of ethnic-based parties under the leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). In stark departure from its predecessors, the Constitution establishes an ethnic-based federal republic. Five national elections have been organized since the Constitution entered into force. The May 2015 general elections were the first under the leadership of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn – the first non-Amhara, non-Tigre head of government in Ethiopian history. He was appointed as Prime Minister following the death of long-time leader Meles Zenawi in August 2012.    

Although the Constituent Assembly, a body elected for the sole purpose of debating and adopting the draft constitution, endorsed the Constitution with a wide margin, a number of significant issues remain contentious. Due to the dominance of the EPRDF, which controlled more than 90% of the seats in the Constituent Assembly, its positions finally prevailed. The control over the transitional process allowed the EPRDF to write the rules of the game in accordance with its policy preferences, and strengthen the mechanics of political control that paved the way for its future electoral victories. In accordance with the policies of the party, the Constitution, among others: establishes an ethnic-based federal state; constitutes a parliamentary form of government; adopts the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system; vests the power of constitutional review/adjudication in the House of Federation, the second house, rather than in the courts; recognizes the state ownership of land and natural resources and; guarantees the right to self-determination of ethnic groups, including secession. The marginalization of rival voices in the constitution making process continues to dent the legitimacy of the Constitution. Indeed, many opposition groups refer to it as the ‘TPLF’, rather than the ‘Ethiopian’, Constitution. 

Unlike many of its contemporaries, so far the Constitution has not been amended (despite indication that there are (two) amendments, there is no official record of them). In comparison, the 1996 South African Constitution has undergone seventeen amendments, despite the fact that the African National Congress has, like the EPRDF, dominated the nation’s politics. The EPRDF has rejected any calls for constitutional amendment as a non-issue, sparking criticism that the Constitution has become an untouchable ‘Holy Grail’. The government consistently indicates that any political and governance problems that Ethiopia faces are attributable to implementation challenges, rather than legal, constitutional or policy problems. The absence of formal amendments masks deep-seated controversies over a number of fundamental aspects of the Constitution, including the ethnic basis of the federal arrangement, the state ownership of land, the parliamentary system of government, and the transfer of the power of constitutional adjudication from the House of Federation to the courts. Yet, as opposition groups never had sufficient seats, no proposal for constitutional amendment has ever been tabled for parliamentary debate. 

In particular, following the announcement of the results in the May 2015 national elections, where the EPRDF and its affiliates won 100% of the seats in the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR), calls for electoral reform from opposition groups, newspapers, and commentators have resurfaced. The lack of democratic space and the-winner-takes-all effect of the FPTP electoral system combined have produced the skewed electoral outcome. In contrast, according to the ruling party, the electoral victory is a tribute to its stellar socio-economic achievements – Ethiopia has had one of the fastest growing economies in the world in the last decade. The electoral loss of opposition groups is a consequence of their internal fragmentation and their incapacity to present credible alternatives. Any complaint concerning applicable electoral rules and constitutional principles is an attempt to deflect attention from their inherent weaknesses.

The transformation of the ‘TPLF’ Constitution into the ‘Ethiopian’ Constitution requires the popular re-examination of its basic premises. The FPTP electoral system, coupled with the ever-narrowing democratic space, has consistently produced a single dominant party. The adoption of a mixed electoral system is a prerequisite for an inclusive politics where the winner does not take it all.

The first-past-the-post electoral system and ethnic representation

The Ethiopian Constitution adopts a parliamentary form of government where the executive is constituted by and accountable to the HPR. The Prime Minister, elected from the party or coalition of parties with the majority of seats in the HPR, heads the executive, while the President, also elected by the HPR, serves as a unifying but ceremonial head of state. While the Constitution establishes a bicameral legislature, the responsibility of constituting the government and adopting legislation rests with the HPR. Unlike in other federal states, the House of Federation, the second house where each ethnic group has at least one representative, plus an additional one for every one million members, elected by regional legislative councils, is largely not involved in the legislative process. As the principal policy making platform, the inclusivity of the HPR is of paramount significance.  

Under the Constitution and the Electoral Law, members of the HPR are elected for a five-year term in single-member-constituencies based on plurality of votes cast (FPTP). Minority ethnic groups are guaranteed at least 20 of the maximum of 550 seats through the establishment of constituencies in areas populated by the smallest ethnic groups, as identified by the House of Federation. These minority constituencies often have populations much lower than the average population of other constituencies thereby constituting a de facto affirmative action. Currently, the HPR has 547 members, 22 of whom are elected in constituencies dedicated to minority ethnic groups. As most ethnic groups are geographically concentrated, and because the candidates almost always belong to the ethnic group residing in each constituency, the FPTP electoral system has generally created a parliament that broadly reflects the proportionate ethnic composition of the country. In addition, the House of Federation is composed of members representing all recognized ethnic groups. The EPRDF ardently follows the principle of ‘democratic centralism’ where policy decisions are taken in the party politburo and pushed down the party hierarchy. The distinctions between the party and the government are blurry at best. As a result, beyond the symbolic value of direct representation of all ethnic groups, it is difficult to gauge the influence of individual members of parliament on policy choices and decisions.

There is no evidence that the Constitutional Commission that drafted the Constitution and the Constituent Assembly that adopted it genuinely considered alternative electoral systems. A cursory look at the minutes of the Constitutional Commission reveals that there was no significant discussion on the issue. It appears that the FPTP electoral system was extrapolated to the Constitution from the first electoral law that was adopted prior to the finalization of the Constitution.

Electoral results in previous national elections: Taking-it-all 

Although there have been variations, the outcomes of the last five national elections demonstrate the absolute dominance of the EPRDF. In four of the five national elections under the Constitution, the EPRDF and its affiliates won more than 90% of the seats, including the 100% victory claimed in the 2015 elections. Even in the 2005 elections, the most open and competitive elections in Ethiopian history, the EPRDF won a comfortable 68% of the seats in the HPR, enough to amend the Constitution. Following allegations of vote rigging and the refusal of most opposition members to take their seats in the HPR, protests erupted, claiming more than 200 lives. Opposition leaders, journalists and activists were arrested and convicted of promoting violence, although most were pardoned and released soon after. Almost all the seats lost to opposition groups were reclaimed by the EPRDF following by-elections, which were boycotted by opposition parties. Despite the official adoption of a multi-party system, the electoral results have sustained gloomy memories of the pre-1974 no-party monarchical system and the one-party dictatorship of the Dergue military junta (1974-1991).

In addition to its overwhelming control of the HPR, the ruling party has a firm grip on the ground. In particular, following the loss of a significant number of seats in the 2005 elections, including all the seats in Addis Ababa, the EPRDF launched a massive recruitment drive that bloated its membership to more than 7 million, almost one in five of every Ethiopian of working age. The government has also established networks to the lowest household level, the most pervasive of which is the so-called one-to-five groupings (Tirnefa), where up to five households are bonded together as the lowest ‘developmental’ cells. This has created a feeling of being constantly watched under the preying eyes of party officials. On top of these, the ruling party controls all land and access to agricultural inputs, which have effectively been used to ensure the submission of the rural community. In urban areas, the government continues to be the biggest employer, which is often used as a stick as well as a carrot. This forbearing presence of the ruling party makes it almost impossible for opposition groups to recruit capable and willing candidates. As a result, opposition parties have very little chance of obtaining the majority of votes in any constituency. The FPTP electoral system is therefore likely to sustain the hegemony of the ruling party.

Toward a mixed electoral system

As indicated above, both the HPR and the House of Federation include direct representatives of all recognized ethnic groups. Criticisms of the FPTP electoral system are therefore not related to the exclusion of such groups. It is rather the complete non-representation of opposition forces and their divergent views in the HPR that has raised legitimate calls for electoral reform. Despite these calls, official explanations for the selection and continued retention of the FPTP electoral system are wanting. Similarly, the explanatory note to the Constitution does not include any discussion on the electoral system. Despite its direct and significant implications to political organization and inclusivity, the electoral system received little attention.  

The political dominance of the EPRDF is partly attributable to the lack of democratic governance, legal and extra-legal manipulations, and internal fragmentation and infighting within opposition groups. The results of the opening up of democratic space preceding the 2005 elections, where opposition groups won more than 30% of the seats is presented as evidence that the FPTP system does not necessarily lead to one-party dominance. In addition, similar electoral systems in other African countries, such as Ghana and Kenya, as well as in the United States and United Kingdom, have not led to one-party dictatorships. Therefore, addressing the country’s striking democratic deficit must be at the forefront of reforms. Improvements in social and political space will certainly lead to gains for opposition groups, regardless of the electoral system. Nevertheless, electoral systems should be designed and adapted taking into account the history and political realities of a nation. A level playing field cannot simply be assumed. Electoral rules should be capable of producing more inclusive results even in less than ideal socio-political circumstances.

The FPTP electoral system has contributed to the virtual exclusion of opposition groups, particularly in combination with the pervasive presence of the ruling party. The adoption of a version of the proportional electoral system would, even under the same socio-political circumstances, have led to more inclusive and democratic outcomes. For instance, according to the Ethiopian National Electoral Board, in the May 2015 elections, the EPRDF won every seat, but only about 82% of the votes. In Addis Ababa, one of the opposition parties, Semayawi Party, won 16% of the votes, but no seats (out of the total 23 seats allocated for the Capital). Nevertheless, it is almost certain that the EPRDF won more seats than it would have under a version of the proportional electoral system. While systematic abuses and manipulations, and internal weakness of opposition groups certainly played a role, there is no question that the electoral system has contributed a fair share to the dominance of the ruling party. Electoral reform is therefore a prerequisite for inclusive politics. 

Considering the ethnic and religious diversity of Ethiopia, the adoption of a proportional electoral system may, under better democratic circumstances, lead to a proliferation of political parties, possibly leading to unstable governments; nevertheless the design of the electoral system is unlikely to discourage the formation of identity-based political parties.

The initial decision to adopt the FPTP electoral system was uncritical and official justifications for the continued retention of the system are unavailable. Democratic legitimacy requires that decisions on issues as fundamental as the electoral system should be made through open and deliberative processes. In addition, the knowledge base to inform decisions on the choice of electoral systems has expanded exponentially in the last two decades, broadening possibilities for better-informed decisions.  Nevertheless, while appropriate, proposals for electoral reform in Ethiopia have largely been founded on a false premise of exclusivity: that it has to be either the FPTP or the proportional electoral system.

However, a mixed electoral system – where one-half of the members of the HPR would be elected based on the FPTP system, while the remaining half are elected through a proportional electoral system – might suit best Ethiopian realities. The combination of the two systems will create a more inclusive, democratic and accountable legislature reflective of the ethnic and political diversity of the nation. While the FPTP may, and has in the last five elections, notoriously led to wastage of votes, its ability to establish a direct link between candidates and constituencies ensures democratic accountability and responsiveness. It will also guarantee the representation of all ethnic groups in the HPR, given the geographical concentration of almost all ethnic groups. The use of the proportional electoral system will almost certainly guarantee opposition groups some seats in the HPR, thereby ensuring the representation of diverse views in policy-making processes. The proportional electoral system does not necessarily lead to the mushrooming of political parties.

Moreover, simple tweaks to the system can mitigate most of its harsh potential consequences. For instance, the setting of reasonable minimum thresholds for winning seats provides an important incentive to organically form coalitions. Indeed, in South Africa, the system has not led to an out-of-control proliferation of political parties, even without an official minimum threshold. In fact, the proportional electoral system is likely to lead to the emergence of ideology-based parties with support dispersed across all ethnic groups, which will enrich the policy making process.

Concluding remarks: Redeeming the legitimacy of the Ethiopian Constitution

The Ethiopian Constitution, as all constitutions, must be seen as a living document in constant need of adapting to changing circumstances and to evolving human knowledge. It is therefore crucial to reconsider and when necessary reform relevant parts of the Constitution. While reform initiatives might be rejected, the process will strengthen any modicum of legitimacy the Constitution enjoys. Considering the fact that the Constitution was adopted under circumstances where voices opposed to the EPRDF were largely unheeded, such redemptive legitimacy is not only necessary but also desirable. In particular, the FPTP electoral system has contributed to the exclusion of opposition groups from the legislative platform. The establishment of an inclusive, democratic and responsive legislature hinges on the adoption of a mixed electoral system that draws on the complementarity of the plurality and proportional electoral systems. 

Adem Kassie Abebe is a Senior Research Fellow at the Max Planck Foundation for International Peace and the Rule of Law (MPFPR), Heidelberg, Germany. He has published extensively on issues of constitutionalism, rule of law and governance, human rights law, and federalism and decentralization, particularly in the African context. The views expressed in this contribution only reflect the personal views of the author. He may be reached at adem.abebe@gmail.com

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.

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