Tigray’s election can accelerate the region’s democratic reforms

Tigray’s election can accelerate the region’s democratic reforms

The emergence of feisty competitors has meant the Tigray People’s Liberation Front has finally had to up its democratic game.

(ethiopia-insight)–Earlier this year, Tigray region had been urging the federal government to stick to the original schedule and carry out national elections for several months. The subsequent June decision of the joint houses of parliament to postpone polls prompted Tigray’s ruling party and State Council to unilaterally undertake a regional election.

While most other opposition parties accepted the federal government decision to postpone due to the pandemic, they were nonetheless disgruntled by the decision. Across the political spectrum, those with significant support like Ethiopian Democratic Party, Oromo Federalist Congress, and the Oromo Liberation Front expressed openly that if the constitution is to be taken literally, the federal government possesses neither the authority nor the legal grounds to extend its term without an election. But still, they grant that Ethiopia is in difficult position to conduct an election, and thus concurred with the government on the need to postpone it.

Yet due to this reasoning they demanded inclusion in the decision-making process as partners with an equal say on how to guide the nation through the pandemic crisis. The way they see it, with the end of the government’s legal term, Prosperity Party loses its authority. Consequently, lacking the legitimacy that differentiates it from other parties, it would need to get the consent of and compromise with its competitors.

Neutral observers remarked that even if one claims PP has fulfilled the legal requirement to prolong its term, it “sidestep(ped) a problem that is essentially political and thus could only be sustainably solved through a political process” thus failing to create the consensus that is vital to bring the stability the decision is supposed to grant. This is significant since bringing stability and consensus is precisely what propelled Abiy to power.

The outburst of violence in early July exacerbated the disputes.

After the initial shockwave subsided every side started pointing fingers at their ideological nemeses and conjuring conspiracy theories. This undid any trust and reversed any open-mindedness that had been built among opposing camps. By claiming that certain medias are exacerbating conflict by inciting violence, the government moved to ban the internet and try and block outlets such as Tigray TV and Demtsi Woyane. Moreover, major political figures have been incarcerated and are awaiting trial.

This controversial string of moves by the incumbent, seemingly aimed at paralyzing the opposition camp, is unlikely to provide a lasting solution as it has only paused the crisis until an opportune moment for it to erupt again. Tigray’s regional election today could well be the catalyst for that.

TPLF’s curious position

To outsiders unfamiliar with the political terrain in Tigray, TPLF’s statements regarding the postponement of the election appear unintelligible.

A cursory examination suggests the party’s insistence to stick to the election schedule, in any circumstances, is unwarranted. Many indeed have attempted to brush it aside as mere stubbornness at best and, at worst, some sort of sinister desire to stoke instability. To be fair, TPLF had also asked for an all-inclusive dialogue and only after its repeated calls went unanswered did it resort to its present course.

The TPLF argument rests on its determination to uphold the constitution and PP’s presumed efforts to undermine it. However, in the past, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), of which the TPLF, by its own admission, was an influential member, did not have a good reputation for upholding the law. Similar to PP’s recent actions to postpone the election, EPRDF was often accused of abusing its overwhelming dominance in all branches of government to twist policies to suit its self.

Such criticism, though based on some truths, do not appreciate the grounds upon which TPLF is making its demands, the significance Tigrayans in general place on guaranteeing their self-administration rights, or accurately analyze the influence of recent developments in Tigray’s political landscape.

Emergence of Tigrayan neo-nationalism

Outside Tigray, TPLF has acquired a reputation as an extremist ethno-nationalist party devoted exclusively to upholding the interest of Tigrayans—often at the cost of other Ethiopian citizens. And while conceding, usually superficially, that only a few members of the inner circle actually benefitted from TPLF’s policies, outsiders nonetheless take it for granted that most Tigrayans are against TPLF’s ethnic-based approach and, had it not been for TPLF’s coercive machinations, they would have long joined Abiy’s ‘Medemer’ agenda, including embracing unitarian party politics.

However, even the most cursory examination of the facts reveals that such opinions, commonly aired on pro-Abiy media outlets, are wide of the mark in terms of accurately reflecting Tigrayan sentiments.

True, there has been growing discontent with TPLF leadership, which had threatened to spill over around the time of Abiy’s ascent to office. But the reason behind this resentment and the reform demanded is opposite to the one propagated among media promoting the centralizing model.

Apparent maladministration issues and corrupt practices in the region’s institutions had indeed given rise to discontent. However, with TPLF’s return to Mekelle, came a deeper issue that had largely been subdued owing to Tigrayans’ tacit belief that, for better or worse, they had sacrificed a lot to establish the government in Addis and the present constitution. They may have gradually withdrawn their active support, but, given the human capital they had invested to put the TPLF-led EPRDF government in Menelik II’s palace, they were resigned to tolerating it.

With its humbling return to Tigray, however, TPLF suddenly found itself vying to convince its power base, the one it had taken for granted, that it deserves their confidence. And with the emergence of Tigrayan-based parties Baytona Tigray, Salsay Weyane, and TIP (Tigrayan Independence Party), who are avowedly and exclusively ethnocentric, it faces a struggle for survival in today’s election.

The ideas reflected among these parties represent opinions that have rapidly taken form among a new breed of Tigrayan intellectuals, who, following the political upheavals that accompanied Abiy’srise, have deviated from TPLF’s conventional outlook to carve their own sociopolitical narrative.

One of this parties expected to do well in the upcoming election is Salsay Woyane Tigray (SAWOT) whose name roughly translates as the ‘third indignation’ (weyane comes from the word ‘wey ane‘, a cry of outrage at injustice). This party portrays itself as a successor of the previous two ‘weyanes’. As such it emphasizes its commitment to reignite the ‘weyane’ spirit and reinvigorate the progressive attitude among Tigrayans which it believes has long been lost by TPLF (the second weyane).

It also claims the indigenous ‘weyane’ culture has been hijacked by Marxist-influenced doctrines of TPLF who used it to infuse the leftist idea of revolution and vows to purge and revive its indigenous context. But beyond squabbles over terminology, its adherents make strong assertions questioning the authenticity of TPLF’s ethno-nationalist claims.

Accordingly, they argue that TPLF is not serious enough in its ethno-nationalist character, merely using it as a convenient vehicle to rally Tigrayan peasants who were unfamiliar with, and thus less likely to fight for, Marxist notions of class struggle. The way they see it, TPLF may have started out holding an ethno-nationalist banner, but that was more due to convenience than devotion. And, upon reaching Arat Kilo, it has deserted its ethno-nationalist cloak in favor of its favorite leftist ideals and has since adopted a pan-national outlook primarily anchored in Addis.

Given its dogged refusal to compromise on constitutional clauses that pertain to ethnic self-administration, TPLF’s ‘desertion’ of Tigray’s national cause may well be overblown. But, while acknowledging the importance of ‘the national question’ (aka, the need for ethnic groups to have the right to self-governance via self-determination), it seems nonetheless to have showed signs of relegating it as secondary.

This, according to some, is evidenced in its belief that the ethnic question is ultimately to be answered with the economic triumph of the working class. This assessment seems to agree not only with the Marxist origins of the party but also with the fact that EPRDF has primarily focused on what it likes to call a “war on poverty” for the past two decades.

EPRDF’s poverty eradication mission implies that it gives supreme importance to the class struggle for economic liberty and underscores its inherent belief that all working class (mainly impoverished farmers comprising roughly 80 percent of the population) regardless of their ethnic differences, are primarily united by the virtue of the fact that their main enemy is poverty.

This paradoxical tendency by left-wing parties to neglect ethnic causes has been noted by academic Donald Horowitz. In his book, Ethnic Groups in Conflict, he asserts:

“I have highlighted the dilemma faced by left-wing parties operating in an ethnic party system, because the argument has sometimes been made – and it is grounded solidly in Marxist doctrine – that the “real” lines of social cleavage are not ethnic lines at all. More often than not, therefore, the impetus to ignore or to cross ethnic lines in party organization emanates from the left. The electoral survival of socialist parties only when they espouse ethnic causes, and their conspicuous electoral failure when they do not do so, attests to the pre-emptive power of ethnic party systems when they emerge in Asia and Africa.”

The last lines of Horowitz’s quote foreshadow the strong competition TPLF is bound to face from ethno-nationalist parties like Salsay Woyane in today’s election. Moreover, it also explains why it has recently toned down its leftist (in its lexicon, ‘revolutionary democracy’) ideals in favor of more vigorous ethno-nationalism.

Baytona Tigray, the other increasingly popular ethno-nationalist party, has garnered support by its strong emphasis advocating a return to the roots to reclaim Tigrayan renaissance. Deriving its name from baito, a village-level parliament system practiced among Tigrayans since ancient times, it insists on creating an indigenous democratic platform embedded in the historical and cultural foundations of Tigray. As such, it fiercely criticizes TPLF for the ‘alien’ leftist ideologies it imposed on Tigrayan sociopolitical arena and argues that Tigray can only reclaim its ancient glory by developing a political and economic model deduced from indigenous wisdom. Its economic program, which it dubs ‘baytoawi democracy’, however, doesn’t seem too dissimilar to the TPLF’s ‘developmental democracy’, causing some to insinuate that it is a rip off.

The most recent party to appear on the scene is Tigray Independence Party (TIP). TIP, apart from TPLF, has arguably succeeded in receiving widespread support and its radical doctrines have taken Tigray by storm. Advocating Tigray’s independence as the only viable option, it promises upon election to invoke Article 39 of the constitution to start the formal process towards secession. Contrary to presumptions of many, however, it insists that its call for independence is not grounded on embitterment caused by recent ill-treatment of Tigrayans. Grounding its thesis on viewing Ethiopia as an empire within whose womb different nationalities struggle for dominance, TIP asserts that the nationalistic aspirations of the different ethnicities in Ethiopia are fiercely antagonistic and irreconcilable, thus positing separation as the only rational solution.

What is more curious, however, is its claim that it is inevitable for any group that occupies Menelik II palace to continue and sustain the imperialistic policy, pointing its finger, unlike some, even on TPLF, which it says has been as centrist and dominating as its predecessors.

Moreover, it goes further and makes a rather startling argument that no matter who occupies the federal seat of power, it is inevitably going to dominate and implicitly subjugate the interests of other ethnic group; that democracy and subsequent economic development cannot be sustained in such ethnically diverse nation where allegiances are wielded primarily based on ethnic affiliation than the merit of policies. And, anchoring its outlook on Tigray’s interest, it argues that the only way the nationalist aspirations of Tigray, as well as its subsequent development and democracy needs, could be achieved and sustained are through attaining nationhood.

TIP’s rather unexpected popularity, especially in urban areas, is of course fueled by the recent resentment and frustration Tigrayans have come to feel as the result of the ethnic-based assaults and defamations that have been directed at them since 2016 (and before). That these acts have become state-sponsored, as perceived by many Tigrayans, since Abiy took office, further aggravated their sense of exclusion, and fostered the longing, especially among the youth, for an independent Tigray.

Of the parties contending in the upcoming election, Assimba Democratic Party (ADP) remains the least understood. Rooting its constituency primarily in Erob woreda, ADP advocates social democracy as an economic model and calls for peace and reconciliation. And, channeling the anxiety of Erob people, who live in the disputed territories of Ethio-Eritrean border, on the possibility of being divided into the two countries following the inevitable implementation of the boundary demarcation, ADP aims to find amicable solution that preserves the territorial integrity of the Erob people. Apart from that its policies seem the least contemplated, or perhaps the least adequately conveyed.

All these newly emergent ethno-nationalist parties seem united in their shared accusation of TPLF for prevalent maladministration and corruption in Tigray. Moreover, they claim that TPLF has also abandoned Tigray, in so far as, after entering Arat Kilo decades ago, it misused the best minds and resources of Tigrayans; not for Tigray’s development, but to execute federal errands.

This, for them, caused two problems.

On the one hand, the Tigrayan intellectual elite were forced to bear an unnecessary burden, which should and could have been shared among all constituent states, thereby depriving Tigray of the much-needed resources that would have furthered its development. Instead, Tigray, they claim, languishes in maladministration and corruption under the hands of under-qualified party cadres with neither the capacity nor the attitude to carry out their administrative assignments.

On the other hand, they acknowledge that the unwarranted presence of a disproportionate number of Tigrayans in federal positions has caused an unanticipated yet legitimate embitterment among other nationalities. These nationalities, they assert, would otherwise have been much-needed strategic allies in strengthening the federation. The initial reluctance shown among non-Tigrayan ethnic-based parties to ally themselves with TPLF in their struggle against what they saw as an attempt to undermine the ethnic federal arrangement shows that their criticisms are not unfounded.

Voters heading to polls in Mekele, Tigray on 9 September; submitted

However, in spite of such fierce criticism of TPLF, these parties have shown unwavering commitment to supporting its endeavor to secure Tigray’s political interests. They have not shied away in their demands for greater democratization and accountability. However, they have chosen to do so by appealing to Tigrayan public and civic societies, instead of seeking federal intervention, or allying with TPLF’s opponents outside Tigray.

Confronted with such mass discontent, primarily due to decades long maladministration and neglect, and realizing that it is on the verge of losing its constituency, TPLF has eventually permitted progressives into its leadership. Moreover, it has vowed to undertake what it labeled “deep reform measures” aimed at regaining the public trust. This action, which saw, among other things, major reshuffling and readjustment of leadership all the way to wereda level seems to have at least appeased the public discontent.

Moreover, the transparency and inclusiveness initiatives in the administrative process, highly unusual given the secretive character of TPLF, introduced and spearheaded by acting president, Debretsion Gebremichael, have been well received by most Tigrayans, who have warmed up to his efforts.

But with the recent emergence of the ethno-nationalist competitors, which have somewhat surprisingly succeeded in amassing a reasonably large following, especially in urban areas, TPLF has been forced into a bidding war to convince its constituency that it, not its competitors, represents authentic Tigrayan interests.

Horowitz shows that in the presence of ethnic party systems, even ethnic-based parties like TPLF with greater pan-national leanings are bound to face outflanking by more zealous ethno-nationalist parties of their own constituency. And this, in turn, forces them to take more ‘radical’ positions not to lose their electoral base:

“… there is party competition, or the possibility of it, within ethnic groups. The possibility of intragroup party competition creates strong incentives for parties to be diligent in asserting ethnic demands, the more so when they consider the life-or-death implications of that competition for the party’s fortunes. Outbidding for ethnic support is a constant possibility.”

One of the consequences of such internal dialogue is TPLF’s decision to conduct the election in Tigray on schedule irrespective of whether or not the rest of the country follows suit. However, contrary to what many may believe, the overwhelming majority of Tigrayans are committed to this. TPLF’s decision is as much a consent to the people’s demand as it is the party’s. In fact, TIP and Baytona Tigray have publicly called for the election to be held on schedule before Tigray State Council formally embraced the idea.

Notwithstanding such competitive dynamics, however, TPLF has so far wisely chosen to position itself as a bridge between ethnocentric and pan-national leanings. It is indeed ironic that the party that has come to acquire an unfavorable reputation among unitarians for its ‘ultra-ethnic’ character while, conversely, it is taking the heat for advocating a pan-Ethiopian outlook among the new breed of ethno-nationalist parties.

TPLF, on its part, has used this paradox as evidence that it has been taking the right course between the two extremes in order to convince its constituency to elect it, arguing that it alone is trustworthy to safeguard Tigray’s future within the existing political context. What is certain is that, right now, TPLF is the only party with legitimate popular support as well as credibility that strongly advocates remaining within the existing federation.

This is without doubt going to make it appealing to urban and rural Tigrayans who maintain economic ties outside of Tigray as the only experienced party to negotiate a suitable settlement with the federal government without compromising Tigray’s interest. What is even more interesting is that, given the political spectrum, pan-Ethiopian pressure groups, if they are indeed committed to seeing Tigray remain with Ethiopia, are going to have to set their hopes on TPLF’s success.

Birth pangs for true democracy?

Squeezed between a hostile federal government seemingly preoccupied with seeking ways to undermine it and a Tigrayan public increasingly demanding liberty, TPLF has progressively permitted the widening of the political space. But, irrespective of the forces pressuring it towards democratization, the remarkable efficiency and moderation shown by TPLF’s current leaders in the process towards election, especially Debretsion, deserves huge praise.

Indeed, the pre-election process, from party campaigns to live televised debates, has been widely perceived among Tigrayans as unprecedented in the region with perhaps the contested 2005 election campaigns of Addis Ababa cited as close comparison. Contending parties and independent candidates have been given proportionate air time to conduct their campaigns in all Tigrayan media. Moreover, 15 million birr has been shared equally among the parties with an additional one million donated by a good-willed businessman.

But, what has surprised most has been the manner in which the four successive debates among the five parties have been carried out. These debates, each over a specific political issue, have witnessed impressive competitiveness and a lively exchange of arguments. But, the sense of respect among the representatives, who confined their exchanges to ideological issues, rather than personal attacks or inflammatory comments, is also commendable.

All in all, the maturity with which the parties carried out their campaigns and the overall election atmosphere has sparked interest and hope among many Tigrayans. It has also tempted many skeptics, which had thus far remained unmoved by Tigray’s commitment to conduct a democratic election, to rethink their positions.

Irrespective of who ‘won’ the debates, it is doubtless the case that the overall climate has revamped and boosted TPLF’s public image. It could thus be argued TPLF has reaped great benefits from the whole process, favorably enhanced by its contrast with the federal government, which has yet to set a date for the national election.

Despite its blemishes, most Tigrayans are likely to keep their fidelity to TPLF. This stems from two reasons.

First, its past blunders notwithstanding, TPLF has shown unflinching commitment when it comes to what most Tigrayans consider the most vital political position—defending the political survival and autonomy of Tigray Regional State. And, with the threat posed by ultra unionist cliques with avowed aims of reconfiguring the current federal arrangement looming, they’ve intuitively recognized the moment for dissent is not now.

Second, the emotional attachment of most Tigrayans to TPLF, for whom almost every household has lost at least one member, runs very deep. Such a bond is unlikely to be severed quickly and this, in turn, is likely to give the party even more time to ponder more convincing reforms.

Meanwhile, the escalation of conflict with Abiy’s Prosperity Party, which most Tigrayans have come to consider as a resurrection of the Derg, is reinvigorating Tigrayans’ proud history of resistance and bravery, of which the 17 years struggle has a unique place. And such heroic feats of battle, being indelibly associated with TPLF, are bound to arouse fond memories and reignite sympathy for party leadership.

If today’s poll and the aftermath is carried out in a manner even close to the pre-election campaign, Tigray’s election will surely receive well-deserved applause and recognition, primarily from the electorate itself. And if the delicate situation between the federal government and Tigray is handled properly, the election will doubtless contribute its share in improving democratization and self-administration in Ethiopia.