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Final preparations for the bigger stage

The ruling party and 21 opposition political parties have continued thrashing out pre-negotiation modalities. Putting their differences aside, the ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and opposition parties have recently agreed to come to a roundtable to find ways of nurturing the political environment. Participant parties have been debating on the nature of the rule, with some arguing the rule should address exclusively negotiation while others, including the ruling party, demanded it should also include debate and discussion, reports Solomon Goshu.

Ethiopia transitioned to one party system only in 1987. Prior to that, the country remained a no-party state. It is only after 1991 that the concept of multiparty system becomes part of the Ethiopian political life. Thus, the culture of accommodating institutionalized dissent to the ruling elites is a recent phenomenon in the country. Today, formally speaking, multiparty system is one of the defining characteristics of the current system. In that regard, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is credited for introducing a multiparty system for the first time.

Needless to say, after 2010, the fact that the Ethiopian multiparty system has entered into an almost non-existent stage is no more a contested matter. The results of the last two national elections showing only one opposition figure in the House of People’s Representatives is a testimony to this consensus. Allegedly, this led many commentators to claim that the country has taken one step back and literally become a single-party state again.

Despite such claims, the ruling party contends that the constitutional order does not entertain anything like single-party system. Instead, it refers the reality as ‘the emergence of a dominant party system in the country’. According to literatures, a single-party system explains a situation where a single political party forms the government and no other parties are permitted to organize or run candidates for election. Such was the case with the Workers Party of Ethiopia under the Derg regime. To the contrary, a dominant party system refers to a situation under a multi-party contestation, wherein several political parties compete for power and culminating repeatedly by the victory of one party, drawing the overwhelming support of the electorate and indeed the population at large. EPRDF always claims that it has stayed in power after it has been repeatedly able to gain the confidence and trust of the Ethiopian people, who have endorsed its clear program and development strategy.

In fact, the promulgation of the 1995 Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) Constitution allows for a free, voluntary and peaceful participation of contending political parties in a multi-party setting. The same Constitution assumes that fair, free and peaceful election is conducted periodically among different contending parties.

Now, the real question is whether that has become a reality in the present Ethiopian political landscape. For many, Ethiopia has become a full-fledged authoritarian state after 2005. And, the slightly modified ideology and growth model of the ruling party and the government, the democratic developmental state, has strengthened the party’s long-held view that the opposition in Ethiopia is working against the basic interests of the public and the establishment.

In reaction to the widespread opposition and protest against the ruling party and the government, which occurred a few months after the landslide electoral win by the EPRDF in the 5th nation-wide parliamentary election in May 2015, the EPRDF has promised to make some basic reforms. Moreover, as opposed to its previous pronouncements, the ruling party, both formally and informally, has immediately started to speak about the positive roles of opposition political parties considering the diversity of the country. When it finally made official that the current electoral system, the first-past-the-post electoral system, which has a constitutional backing, is going to be amended to include the proportional representation electoral system which would ensure the better representation of opposition parties, many expected overwhelming reform from the ruling party.

Viewed from such a perspective, it is only logical to expect an inclusive discussion and negotiation between the ruling party and the opposition camp. True to its promise, EPRDF has invited all nationwide opposition parties for discussions and negotiations two months ago. Since then, five rounds of discussions were held between the ruling party and the 21 nationwide parties, and the sixth one is scheduled for March 18, 2017. So far, the discussions only dealt with the modalities of the discussions and negotiations.

In an attempt to come up with a rule of procedure to conduct the discussions and the negotiations, the 22 nationwide parties have identified 12 issues for discussion where agreement is expected to be made with consensus. These issues are: purpose; identities of participant parties; number of representatives for each party; quorum and decision-making procedures; agendas for negotiations; media usage; assignment of speakers; management of negotiations; observers and their roles; ethics and disciplines; internal organization, administration, and logistics; and venue for discussion.

However, before they start discussing the contents of the rule, the issue of the title of the rule became a highly debatable subject. The majority of the opposition prefers the word ‘negotiation’ while EPRDF and few opposition parties made it clear that there may come a time when the parties need to debate or just discuss issues. Hence, they insisted on the inclusion of the words ‘debate’ and ‘discussion’ on the title.

“Our focus is negotiation,” Professor Beyene Petros, the long-standing opposition figure and the current chair of the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum a.k.a. Medrek, said. He also pointed out that if it were not for the current political crisis, the opposition would never have got the chance to have a discussion and a debate let alone to negotiate. To the dislike of EPRDF’s representatives, Shiferaw Shigute, Asmelash Woldesellassie, and Abdulaziz Mohammed, this sentiment was shared by other opposition parties’ representatives

“We are not entering into negotiation under pressure. We are discussing and negotiating because we are convinced that doing so would serve the interests of the public and the country,” Asmelash said. Similarly, Shiferaw said that the country is not in dire strait.

After dissecting and analyzing the impacts and benefits of the three words, the parties finally agreed to include all the three words and apply them when the need arises. However, Asmelash warned that the fact that EPRDF would discuss debate and negotiate on any issue does not guarantee a change in policy or laws. “Of course, we would weigh the agendas. EPRDF has its own ideology. It would accept or reject ideas based on its ideology and policies,” he contended.

What is more, the issue of the purpose of the negotiations raised a heated debate. This is where the parties directly or indirectly discuss the status of the multiparty system in the country. At the end of the day, the parties agreed to use the forum to ensure the transfer of power in peaceful and legal manners only through election; to amend laws that needs amending and correct their enforcement taking the different ideas gathered from the forum as inputs; to strengthen the relationship between parties and develop their contributions to the country’s peace, democracy and development; to create an enabling environment where the public makes an informed decision by accessing the alternative ideas of the opposition; to contribute for the creation of national consensus in the country; and; to give solutions to the problems identified as hindrances to the political space and the multiparty system in the country.

Again, the ruling party demonstrated a total change of heart in its agreement to revisit the existing laws particularly those laws related with the civil and political rights of citizens. As expected, Medrek expressed its reservations on a few of the ideas. For instance, it enquired whether EPRDF is open to the issue of constitutional amendment. EPRDF representatives argued that as long as there is an agreement to amend laws, the specific type of law which includes the Constitution should be a subject of discussion on the agendas.

On the contrary, Medrek’s proposal on ensuring the free, fair, and credible elections, and realizing the multiparty system in the country were met with stiff resistance from the EPRDF. “Are we saying that there is no multiparty system in the country or there never was a legitimate election in the country?” Asmelash asked. Making these questions more specific and personal, Shiferaw asked Professor Beyene who served as a member of parliament in two occasions “Weren’t you in parliament as a result of the realization of the multiparty system?”

Indeed, some of the parties were not happy with the over elongated discussions only on the preliminary issues and asked EPRDF representatives to expedite the matter. As a result, in the last rounds of discussion the parties managed to agree on few critical issues including the identities of participant parties, the number of representatives for each parties, quorum and decision-making procedures, and the identity of the negotiator.

EPRDF is not alone when it comes to sharing blames for the state of affairs of opposition political parties. In part, the opposition and the public are also responsible for the failure of the opposition from playing meaningful roles in the recent political life of the country. The great majority of the opposition parties are accused of, among other things, being extremely weak, ethnically fragmented, their political elites obsessed with self-respect, incapable of creating strong constituencies and offering alternative viable policies, and suspicious and competitive of each other. Some of these characters were vividly visible in the discussions.

While appreciating the fact that such a forum is hard to come by, when discussing the identities of participant parties, Medrek asked to negotiate one-to-one with EPRDF as it is the main opposition party in light of the number of candidates in the last general election. All participant parties were furious with Medrek’s proposal. Some of the languages used to express opposition were insulting to say the least. Chanie Kebede (PhD), President of Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), said that as long as the negotiation with any party results in the desired changes in the state of affairs of multi-party system, EDP has no interest in personalizing the negotiations, and advises others to do the same. Wasihun Tesfaye, head of EDP’s Research and Publication Unit, added that what matters is the prior agreement on how to choose representatives, if there is any need, and it should be based on clear standards.

The other issue in relation to the identities of the participant parties involves the status of the leadership of Blue party. In the beginning Yilkal Getnet (Eng.) represented the party in the discussions. However, in the middle of the discussion, Yilkal was asked by the chair to leave the discussion room claiming that the information from the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) favors his opponent Yeshiwas Assefa. However, the NEBE is still to pass a decision on who is the legitimate leader of Blue. Some parties asked for the resolution of this issue before the real discussion on the agendas started. They even suggested establishing an ad hoc committee to investigate the matter. EPRDF opposed the proposal saying that it should first be registered as an independent agenda.

Even if all the participant parties are nationwide political parties, EPRDF suggested for the inclusion of regional parties having seats in parliament like that of its own affiliates, though it was rejected.

However, as the agreements on two outstanding issues were conditional upon other agreements, the parties postponed discussions on other issues to March 18, 2017. EPRDF showed full support to have the negotiation either on one to one, or through elected representatives. The 21 opposition parties are scheduled to meet on March 13, 2017 to decide over this issue. Once this issue is resolved, a decision on the number of representatives for each party would be easy, the parties agreed. In principle, the quorum is agreed to be 2/3. However, if the negotiation is to one to one, the presence of both parties would be required. In terms of decision-making, agreement by consensus is preferred.

In conclusion, the parties postponed the decision on the identity of the negotiators. However, two options were forwarded on the table. Some parties called for independent and professional negotiators. The other option is for all the participant parties to serve as negotiators in rotation. The parties are expected to decide over the issue in the next rounds of the discussion on the rule.