A self-confident incumbent

Reda’e Halefom is head of Public Relations Directorate at the office of the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) Council. Reda’e earned his BA degree in Sociology and Social Anthropology from Addis Ababa University. He then started working at different local-level administrations in the Tigray Regional State. He was also head of the then Tigray Information Bureau. He served as a communications expert at the Government Communication Affairs Office between 2009 and 2014. He has been serving as head of the Public Relations of EPRDF since 2014. Solomon Goshu of The Reporter caught up with Reda’e to discuss the EPRDF’s election preparation and related issues. Excerpts:

The Reporter: How are you preparing for the upcoming May 24 election?

Reda’e Halefom: As usual, EPRFD goes to elections well prepared. We started the preparations by devising an election strategy. The political parties’ code of conduct proclamation is incorporated into our election strategy. We have devised an implementation plan to guide us through the election process. In preparation, we have also given our party members and high-level political leaders special trainings. At the same time, we have started our formal election campaign process, and it looks to be going well.

Though the first generation of the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP I) is yet to be evaluated, your party is using the second generation of this plan in its election campaign. So, is GTP II what your party is offering to the voter public in the upcoming election?

To begin with, EPRDF is a peoples’ party. Basically, peoples’ parties do not campaign on the basis of verbal promises. In our view, campaigning on the basis of promises like ‘I do this and that’ is not healthy. We prefer to inform the voter of what we have achieved; we tend to focus on actual results. So, we speak of the things that we have done on the ground, thus far. We believe that the people have given us a contract. So, we are striving not to default on that contract. Among other things, the leadership of the party has helped the country to be among the few ones in the world registering the highest economic growth figures during the past few years. We are trying to incorporate stakeholders’ feedback into this process. Hence, our election campaign is focused on our success and failures of delivering these development activities. The whole purpose of GTP I and other plans and programs in the country is to ensure the renaissance of Ethiopia. The ruling party is working around the clock to make sure this is a reality. However, we do not like to deceive the public by promising to do this and that.

The ruling party is repeatedly accused of mixing party and state functions. Especially during election times, the party is said to be portraying achievements that belongs to the government as its own. What do you say to that?

We take such criticisms for their mere value as criticisms. But, we have to evaluate whether such claims have any grounds, or any piece of evidence to back them. Anywhere in the world, the government executes the ruling party’ political programs and strategies. This is a normal procedure. In the more seasoned democracies, you will see frequent change in the ruling parties based on the periodical elections they hold. This would help to clearly draw the line between the ruling party and the government. Apart from the ruling party and the government operators themselves, the public is also well aware of the demarcation that exists between the two. However, it does not mean that in Ethiopia party and government lines cross one another all the time. This ruling party is very watchful of that line. Even when there is an overlap it is will be done via legal and democratic ways. Sometimes, problems might exist on both organizational and individual levels; and this demarcation might be breached. But when it happens, the party takes measures to correct them. Nevertheless, we can’t say that the ruling party and the government should never meet. It’s the leaders of the ruling party that establishes a government. They are expected to have clearly distinct roles in government and the party. Although there are some who might get confused about these distinct roles, the party clearly knows their responsibility. On the other hand, it is the policies and strategies of the ruling party that have brought the positive outcomes we see today. So I see no reason why the party should not advertise these success stories and use them in election campaigns.

It is said that sheer numbers (membership) is one strength that the ruling party has over the other parties in Ethiopia. In this regard, coming into the election, what is the final tally of your party membership? How far are these members devoted to the party?

Currently we have more than six million registered members. Although we believe that the people are the ones responsible for the nation’s destiny, we also think that all six million members do have their own irreplaceable role to play. These (EPRDF members) are people who are devoted to make the future of their country better. Nevertheless, I do admit that there might be a few individuals who don’t share this vision; and that they joined the party for totally the wrong reasons. For instance, there might be a few who are after their own benefits. They expect that they would benefit from being members of the party, but most of them find out that this is not the case and opt to leave immediately. The party also tries to filter its members. The first thing we do is try and support them to know exactly what is expected from them as members of EPRDF. We offer them continuous training sessions and try to build their capacity. Our main training machineries are those lower-level party organs. They are the major training and research cells. Apart from that, we organize various forums and meetings where members can exchange ideas and hold ideological debates among themselves. Nevertheless, if all this could not shape the members and that it has problem internalizing what party is all about, then members would be let go.

The oppositions accuse of you narrowing down the political playing field. They say your financial might has a lot do with that. Do you think EPRDF’s financial capacity has a role to play in its success in dominating the political scene?

EPRDF’s source of strength is never its financial resources. It is rather the clarity of its political direction. It is because our policies are concrete and are home-grown solutions. Our policy direction is instrumental in making poverty and backwardness history in Ethiopia. When you have a political direction like this, it is bound to be the case that the people would rally behind you. On the other hand, a political party needs to make its policies and programs known to the voter public and try to garner support on the basis of political programs. I would say the opposition is quite weak in this regard. Most of opposition politicians become visible to the voter public around election time. They need to understand politics is a full-time job. I don’t think this weakness of theirs should be covered up by lack of financial capacity. Yes, it is important that the government offers financial support to fill this gap. However, subsidy alone cannot be an adequate budget to a fully functioning political party. They need to expand their support base and raise better financial resources from their members. If you talk about subsidy to political parties, it was started fairly recently in Ethiopia. Before that, there were political parties operating in Ethiopia. I do understand there could be a few parties who are facing real financial strain to operate as a party. However, we also know that some parties use finance as an excuse; in fact we know many of them get a lot of unaccounted for and shady looking financial contributions.

So, are you telling me that the political playing field poses no impediment to the parties that it is their own political direction that is to blame?

Yes. My party and I are convinced that, for political forces with the right political vision and direction, there is adequate political space in Ethiopia. It is possible to bring about changes in Ethiopia. The door is not closed. If you look at the member parties of the ruling front (EPRDF), they started their struggle with nothing but the right political direction and vision. They went ahead to overthrow that system with millions behind them. Of course, I cannot conclude that all the opposition parties share the same weaknesses. But, I can say that most of them fail in the sense that they don’t exploit the five-year period between elections. They tend to come to life during an election year. Most of them spend their pernicious time going from one embassy to the other instead of going down to the people and mobilizing mass support. Even if we say that the political playing field is constricting, they have space to change that through peaceful struggle.

Political commentators argue that the Ethiopian political land- scape is tinted with highly polarized views. Do you agree with that assessment? Is the ruling party immune to this syndrome?

In our view, we do see significant changes in Ethiopian politics. We have come a long way since those days where different political opinion can cost one their life. After the fall of Derg, forces that were defeated in the arms struggle have revived their extreme political agenda via various means such as the media. I still believe that we are seeing significant improvements in this regard compared to the early days of the ruling party assuming power. However, the improvement is not because these forces have changed their ways but rather because the people have said that they had enough of extreme politics in Ethiopia. So, some of them were forced to reconsider their extreme political agendas. Still very few have decided that there is no better option than peaceful and legal political struggle. There are parties  that  abide by the political parties’ code of conduct and have become part of the political parties’ joint council. This has neutralized the extremely polarized political environment in Ethiopia. This is a success by itself. Nevertheless, there are still those who choose to pursue the extreme and illegal ways. There are those who are calling terrorist groups heroes. As far as we are concerned, we believe we are part of the solution to neutralize the extremely polarized political environment in Ethiopia. We are not sources of extremisms ourselves.

How successful is this political parties’ Joint council? What are its achievements since its formation in 2010?  Does the fact that some of the major opposition forces in Ethiopia are not part of this Council have an impact on its activities?

First of all, we have to ask who said these political parties are the major opposition voices in Ethiopia. We see all opposition parties as equals. What makes the ruling party different is the fact that it is ruling the nation at this time. Actually, the council is doing quite well. To begin with, the council incorporated political parties which have chosen to pursue peaceful and legal political struggle in Ethiopia. The council mainly entertains complaints of the parties and addresses their problems. Apart from addressing these issues, the council draws lessons from these cases. The council entertains various ideas and conducts heated debates around issues. Finally it endorses those ideas which have managed to gain consensus among members of the council. Indeed, it still can do much better. But, we believe that it is a big step forward that they were able to sit down together and discuss issues of national importance at this level.

In your view, which party is a formidable opposition and is a worthy competition for the ruling party?

We believe our main challenge comes in the form of poverty and backwardness. We neither wish to single out nor have the basis to select one or two parties and say that they are our main competition. I cannot imagine considering political parties which do not even have adequately clear ideologies as a strong opposition. We are more worried about our own weaknesses.

Recently some legal issues have been raised against your party by your opponents. The gist of the matter is that EPRDF is made of four member parties but not individuals; and that these member parties are regional parties which cannot be allowed to field candidates in federal cities like Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa. What do you say to that?

This complaint was tabled by the Blue party in a letter that it has written to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). To begin with, it is very odd that the Blue party has tabled its concern to a body that it accuses of being influenced by the ruling party. Furthermore, it is also odd that the complaint is about the ruling party that it says has a strong hold on the Board. EPRDF is a party that is registered as a national party. Its member parties are regional parties. So, the party is eligible to any privileges that is afforded to any national parties in Ethiopia. Both the capital city and Dire Dawa are federal cities. There is nothing on its bylaws that restricts it fromtaking part in the election in federal cities. The real issue here is  the reasons behind this Blue party’s complaint. It is a desperate ploy to get itself out of the mess that it is in. For one, its nine-party coalition was not able to get accreditation from the NEBE. On the other hand, it tried to field candidates who are registered under a different political party. This too was rejected by the Board. So, the complaint was nothing more than a tactic to divert its own misgivings and shortcomings.

Political commentators and some parties in the opposition camp identify the political parties registration law, the press law, the civil society proclamation and the anti-terrorist proclamations to be undemocratic and contrary to the constitution itself. Did your party have any plans to reconsider these laws should you be elected for another term in office?

It is clear that extreme neoliberals and local opposition forces have joined forces around these above-mentioned laws and proclamations. We know who is echoing whose agenda here. These are criticisms which are not advanced for the benefit of the people. If you see it, the civil society proclamation is all about using the financial resources accessed by the civil society organizations to development purposes; and nothing else. In fact, since the proclamation, civil society organizations have increased in number in Ethiopia. The criticism against the press law is also quite clear. It is because the industry is closed to foreign investors. We know that. Of course, the anti-terrorism proclamation as well has some groups worried: the parties that are actually arguing that Ethiopia is not facing terrorism threats. It will suffice to see our neighbors like Kenya, if we have not foiled a number of terrorist plots against the country.

The other criticism against your party is your view towards constitutional amendment. They say the ruling party sees constitutional amendment as the dismantling of the whole system. Nevertheless, the constitution does have its own constitutional amendment procedure. But, why did the ruling party tend to be sensitive when it comes to constitutional amendment?

First of all it should be clear that the FDRE constitution is not EPRDF’s or any other bodies’. Rather it is a declaration of the people; I do not think it is healthy to tell the people that its constitution needs to be amended. When have the people asked for a constitutional amendment? If the request comes via the proper channels, EPRDF is first to back that process. However, the party does not wish to initiate amendments unilaterally.

After the 2010 election, the ruling party has officially adopted the developmental state model and its system of governance. Is it a substitute for revolutionary democracy or are the two being considered side by side?

EPRDF’s official direction is developmental democracy. Revolution is the nature of development and democracy. So, the revolutionary nature combines both development and democracy. The two have to be balanced to bring about a basic change. The government should play its role in filling the market gap that the private sector could not fill. This makes it developmental. The nature of the country by itself, which is diversity, calls for a democratic form of governance so that all are recognized and respected. So, both are in there together. The EPRDF is still a revolutionary front.

But commentators say that developmental state model is rather a growth model; not a political ideology. They argue that this is not a party ideology. What do you say to them?

Yes, I have heard that argument before, and I think,it is a view that is advanced by someone who is not well-versed in the subject matter. Or,it is deliberately concocted by someone to mislead the general public regarding the political direction that the ruling is pursuing. Take any developmental state, it is ruled by a political party at the end of the day. The government implements the party ideology, whether one likes it or not. So, you can see that this arguments do not carry any weight.

Your party said before that this would be the election where most of the old guards would leave the party leadership and make way for new generation of leaders. Is it going to happen now?

Succession is a process not an event. One generation can go as far as a few years in leading the party. So, succession plays an irreplaceable role in carrying the party forward because, across generations, the public would have a different set of demands and development aspiration. So, the leadership of the party has to evolve to keep up with that changing reality. However, this is a process and there are no plans to finish or start the succession process during this year’s election or the next.

You constituted an overwhelming majority in the lawmaking body during the last five years; you and your affiliate parties held all but two seats in the parliament. So, what are your plans for this election?

During last election the opposition were barred from entering parliament by the public. The public has spoken through its voting card. Personally, I don’t think there are parties which, let alone can compete, can stand on an equal footing with EPRDF. Nevertheless, we think it is for the public to decide and we leave it at that.