Professor Beyene Petros is currently the President of the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum (Medrek), one of the main opposition political parties participating in this year’s General Election 2015. He is also a Professor at the Addis Ababa University. Solomon Goshu of the Reporter sat down with him in his office situated opposite to the 5th gate of the University he has served for several decades. Professor Beyene reflects his party’s view on the independence of the Ethiopian National Election Board (NEBE), what Medrek is offering for the electorate, the ideological differences of the Ethiopian parties, the challenges behind strong coalition building, his personal experience and lessons as a participant in all the elections since EPRDF assumed power, among other things. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You are chairing one of the strongest opposition parties in the country. So far how is your preparation for the upcoming General Election going?
Professor Beyene: Our party considers elections rather very seriously. We have the big stake in it because we are an elections party or political groupings. Since the farce 2010 election we have been trying very hard to negotiate the electoral landscape with the ruling party so that it would be accessible to all competent political parties including ourselves. This has not been a success so far. Our effort to negotiate the electoral landscape has been one of the major preparations which we intended to accomplish. The ruling party so far refused to engage us on this and make electoral playing field leveled. These are issues like electoral administration which invariably is stocked with the ruling party members and officials of the various levels, and again the lack of observers. The government has refused to invite international observers like EU which was the most frequent observer of the Ethiopian elections. This in effect prevented it from observing the upcoming election. The Americans did also express interest in fielding election observers of one kind or another. Once again, they did not receive response.
In your party’s opinion, why is the government reluctant to invite them or intentionally rejecting these organs from observing the upcoming election?
Any logically minded person would surmise from this that they want to hide something in the electoral process which should not be revealed to other third parties. For that matter the whole process is not even transparent to the competing parties because we don’t have access to some of their activities even when it comes to vote or ballot counting. Our single representative there is most often than not is kicked out when he/she raises some procedural issues on counting.
The government’s defense is rather different. It has been argued that Ethiopia need to internalize the issue of election by relying on domestic resources than foreign judgment on the credibility of the process. Local civil societies and the AU are considered to be better than the EU and the US missions on this particular task. What do you say to that?
In theory, every democratic election must be observable. This is a standard procedure. If you consider the Ethiopian electoral process democratic, ‘internalizing democracy’ and the like is a baloney. The EU and USA observers are stakeholders too. They come from donor countries. One of the missions of the donor countries is to assist the democratization process in Ethiopia. They do collaborate on several aspects to development and the like. If you say you want to internalize when it comes to election, it just doesn’t make sense. The Ethiopian government doesn’t pay a penny. To the contrary, when thousands of observers thousands of rooms will be booked and services delivered. This will benefit the country’s economy. If you don’t have an independent testimonies from individuals without special interest, building consensus on the outcome of the election would be difficult. How long should we wait to stop the controversy at the end of every election in this country? By the way we don’t have the local civil societies to observe the election. Most of the independent civil societies that observed the 2005 election don’t exist now following the enactment of the Charities and Societies Proclamation. Now we have a fake group of local civil societies like that of the women’s group, youth group and business group which are all EPRDF outfits. The AU observation mission is similarly only a window-dressing. They come here testify on behalf of the ruling party. We have no confidence in these guys. They are not professionals. They appear to be tourists who are sponsored by the AU to have fun in Ethiopia.
Medrek’s latest press release has identified some of the challenges it is facing in the pre-election administration. You have mentioned specific cases where members were harassed and candidates’ registration obstructed. Generally what types of challenges are you facing that put your party in a disadvantageous position of the playing field?
There is generally a lack of good will in the process. Administrative organs are trying to find pretexts to obstruct candidates’ registration. Right now I am in the middle of a crisis (the interview was conducted late in the afternoon on Thursday February 11, 2015 which is the last day for candidates’ registration). In the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region, Gamo Zone, election administration officials refused to register our candidates in four electoral constituencies. The fishy reason they gave is that the signature I put in the candidates’ form is not original. We have a standard format where we introduce a candidate. I signed on the paper and we photocopied that paper and put original seal on each and every page of the paper. I cannot sign on the form of every candidate. This is how we operated all over the country. But now at the eleventh hour they refused to register. They use such tactics and pretexts to frustrate our participation in the electoral process. The NEBE does not seem to be informed on the basics of the election process.
Despite all these obstacles you party is still determined to compete in the upcoming election. In how many constituencies are you going to run?
At the moment I don’t have the statistics. Tomorrow we will receive the whole statistics on that. But Medrek is running rather intensely. We almost cover all of Oromia, the Southern, and Tigray regions, and some places in the Amhara region.
Medrek’s rejection of the ‘Electoral Code of Conduct for Political Parties’ which was enacted as a proclamation in 2009 was a widely covered matter on the media. Even if admission process is still open for any party, Medrek is still not a signatory to this code. In your party’s assessment what is this document about? Was there any circumstance that tempted your party to reconsider its position?
We have already reconsidered our position. We have challenged the EPRDF that we will sign it today if they are willing to engage in talks on two fundamental issues. The first one is the professional election administration matters related issues. The second issue is that of election observation. These are the two major bottlenecks of elections. The so called code of conduct is simply pertaining to the behavior of the political parties as they campaign. For that matter, it is part of the electoral law. It is only an addendum to that. As a law abiding political party we abide by whatever is promulgated as a law of the land. But they are saying that if we fail to sign we are not going to be members to the Joint Council (the joint council of political parties established at all levels). We will do that only when EPRDF is ready to discuss the major bottlenecks.
EPRDF officials are saying that Medrek alone cannot demand a one-to-one discussion with the ruling party. They argue that an issue that affects all political parties should be discussed in the Joint Council as it is the proper platform for such issues. They criticize that Medrek is demanding a preferential and special treatment. What do you say to that?
This is not a special treatment. We are just asking our right. This is our privilege to invoke it or not. The difference between us and the other group which is not part of the Joint Council is that they are not concerned about the two major issues. Those political parties that stand with EPRDF in the Joint Council are only accomplices. They are not that serious about winning elections. How many candidates have they registered? We have registered the largest number of candidates next to EPRDF. That is why we are concerned about fundamental issues.
Have you witnessed any change on the way the NEBE operates over the years?
On election matters I consider myself an old timer. I have been in it since 1991. I have also been member of the transitional period Election Commission at some stage. The progress is bad. There were times when Assefa Birru was secretary general of the NEBE where we challenged each other. We presented evidence of wrong doings and impartiality. We identified EPRDF members put as election administrators. On several occasions we did succeed in changing such individuals. The office used to move around and collect evidences. Most of the time, Assefa was on the field during election campaign and Election Day. He made major decisions which reversed the illegal desires of the ruling party to control every electoral constituency. Even then we used to complain in tough words. But we used to get things done. In the 2000 and 2005 election rerun of elections at locations where we presented evidence was conducted. In 2010 we couldn’t manage to get the rerun as NEBE literally rejected all our evidences that we put forward to make our point that the electoral process was all marred. The competence of the Board has gone down. Now they don’t care about facts. They just seemed to be repeating the same music like a broken player. I don’t see people of integrity from top to bottom. It is not serving the nation and the democratic transition in this country.
Recently NEBE has decided on the controversy between the two competing leadership of UDJ and AEUP. Due to that decision which was said to be favoring the minority the independence of the Board is questioned again. What is Medrek’s take on that?
Medrek is an independent observer on the issues of UDJ and AEUP. But we take note of how political parties could be undermined and dismantled. Today it is UDJ and AEUP. Who knows may be tomorrow it may be us. We did see that kinds of thing when we were running the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF). A coup d’état supported by the ruling party did happen in one of our member parties. That party was lucky because it was a member of a bigger umbrella. The leadership and the majority started operating within the UEDF. This time around UDJ and AEUP did not have that kind of umbrella organization. UDJ was a member of Medrek. Even under this fiasco they could have still kept on fielding their candidates through the auspices of Medrek. Political parties opposed to the ruling party would have this threat of surrogates infiltrating and creating discord and controversy within that party. In the case of UDJ and AEUP I would seriously suspect that the hands of the ruling party would be there. It is the intension of the ruling party not to see any group coming out strong. When UDJ decided to stay out of Medrek we suspected that there may be the hands of the ruling party. I don’t think it is 100 percent internally generated differences that led UDJ to split. I would think there are external influences of the ruling party and the Diasporas. Every political party which is opposed to the ruling party should be careful when admitting members and electing members into the leadership. So it is a good lesson for all opposition political parties.
Considering the ideological differences between UDJ and other members of Medrek, some started questioning the alliance. At times the alliance was referred as ‘unholy alliance’. Particularly they emphasized that reconciling the individual rights based philosophy of UDJ and group rights based members of Medrek was extremely difficult. With UDJ’s withdrawal, do you think that those who predicted that the alliance is not going to work from the outset proved right?
Not really. I would consider those guys uninformed in particular on the strategic planning of Medrek. That was a tactical alliance where we identify tactical issues on the contemporary burning issues. It was not a strategic move where we reconcile our ideological differences. The tactical issue around which Medrek was formed includes unity and integrity of Ethiopia, democratization, good governance, and the human rights of individuals. We didn’t even bicker around whether these parties are accepting group rights, individual rights, liberal democracies and the like. I am a social democrat. But every member party may have its own ideological position. The government that will be formed by Medrek will be a government of national unity. That is in our program. It is a government where you would make peace, political landscape accessible, and institute improvements on social, economic and political issues that affect the day to day lives of the people. We did not claim to be a single ideology.
So you still believe that multi-national parties like UDJ can work with ethnic-based parties without a problem in the future?
No. The minimum requirement is submitting at all levels to a democratic discourse. It doesn’t matter whether the political party is ethnic-based or a multi-national one as long as they operate under the democratic tenets. Every party has its own vision. For example, my basic party wants to take this country along a social democratic path. But we cannot exercise it now.
Some researchers who have studied the political programs of EPRDF and Medrek conclude that there is no basic difference between the two political parties beyond implementation strategy. Do you agree?
No. We are totally opposed to the revolutionary democracy agenda which is euphemism to mean communism or a tough socialism. That is the ideological foundation of the ruling party which is causing the entire problem. Because of this they refuse to listen to other parties, to accommodate others, to open up the political landscape, and negotiate with others. Its members are behaving haphazardly because the ideology of revolutionary democracy prevents them to think of other options or from being flexible. On the other hand, all members of Medrek reject this approach. The manner the EPRDF is manipulating the economic life of this country is also the result of revolutionary democracy. It seems that the ruling party wants to introduce a de facto state capitalism. A competent political party must have an ideological difference to run against another party. We have an ideological difference with EPRDF.
Some political analysts who have closely studied the ruling party and the opposition in comparative perspective boldly concluded that while EPRDF evolved to become a different entity than when it started ruling the country, the opposition camp is still concentrating on the transitional period questions. They said that rather than intellectually challenging the ideological basis and nation-building approaches of EPRDF, the opposition blindly oppose all sorts of doings by the ruling party. They further shows that whenever a General Election comes EPRDF offers something new for the electorate as opposed to the opposition. Do you agree with this conclusion?
No. It would be nice to know what different innovative and novel political thinking that EPRDF come up with for this election. Development state has been there since the times of Mao Zedong. The active role of the state in development is not a new thing. The EPRDF ideologues claim that they are creative and their leader discovered this and that. What did EPRDF to the ideological framework of developmental state? EPRDF leaders claim that they are committed and dedicated to nation building, and to take us out of poverty. This is self-righteous attitude. So that is not a credible kind of assessment.
We have learnt that Medrek is revising its election manifesto. What are central issues covered in the manifesto and what are you offering for the electorate this time around?
At this stage what we promise for the electorate is to right what has gone wrong in particular in implementation. The central issues covered in our manifesto include good governance and the organization of the bureaucracy, corruption, land management, democratization, human rights, and equitable distribution of wealth and resources. Cadres are controlling the bureaucracy at the expense of competent Ethiopians. They have put the civil servants literally in servitude. It is a modern slavery. That has stolen out all the desire to work and to perform. We cannot promise to do away all kinds of corruption. But we will reduce it to the minimum. Medrek intends to do a lot of aspects in health, education and the like.
Do you expect to amend the defeat in the last General Election? Do you have the specific strategy to win those electorates back?
I think it is up to the electorate. Medrek is not an elusive spirit. We feel that the population must stand on the ground to protect its ballots. In the past we won elections because the public defended the ballot box and disciplined the so called election administrators not by force but peacefully.
Many are commenting that the approach and format of the Ethiopian opposition need to be changed substantially if the multi-party system is to be genuinely competitive. Some even question their relevance if the current trend continues. Do you share these frustrations?
We have remained relevant because the situation would have been even worse if the opposition voices are not there in this country. To be in the opposition is not necessarily to always win in the election. We advocate, criticize, present alternatives, do mass rallies, conduct meetings, educate the public, and the like. I think we have brought our society a long way. The population is now competitive. I think what is implied in the above comment is the opposition is fragmented, they should come together and consolidate and face EPRDF as one party. That is not possible in Ethiopia. I am a person who have tried coalition forming, front forming, and now Medrek. The interests of Ethiopians are so wide. And as long as there is mixing up of tactical and strategic agenda of political parties, you cannot bring in such a strong grouping in a sustainable manner.
You participated in the four previous General Elections. What is the lesson that you generally get from these elections and which election was particularly most difficult for you personally and your party?
The election which was most difficult was the 2000 election. We won in Hadiya Zone. We paid for it dearly. I have lost so many souls. Our constituency has been suffering since then by reprisal acts by the ruling party. The period between 2002 and 2002 is the most challenging one in my political life. Many were harassed, physically suffered, imprisoned, and killed. Some run for their life and left their home towns. Many of them were youngsters. The majority of them are living on the streets of South Africa.
You have stayed too long in the opposition camp. Have you ever considered quitting it at some stage? Aren’t you tired?
I am tired now. My burden is the people in my constituency. They still think that we can make a difference. How can I abandon them? I will try my best to go whatever distance it takes me to. I am hoping that this will not be my last. Through the 2010 election, EPRDF literally brought electoral landscape to the rock bottom. Will they bury it this time around by totally controlling the parliament? I hope not. But if they do it, I would say I have tried all and leave it there. If they repeat the 2010 election I think that will be the end of it. To go beyond that is extreme naivety.