Choice of Ideologies for Ethiopia: Revolutionary Democracy, Social Democracy, or Liberal Democracy
By Assefa A. Lemu, January 8, 2019
Introduction: According to the online Cambridge Dictionary, ideology is “a theory or set of beliefs, especially one on which a political system, party, or organization is based”. The term ‘ideology’ was coined in 1796 by the French philosopher Destutt de Tracy (1754–1836) to refer to a new ‘science of ideas’ (idea-ology). However, a popular meaning was assigned to the term in the writings of Karl Marx who defined ideology as the ideas of the ‘ruling class’ or the ruling ideas/ the dominant ideas at a given time. Political ideology provides politicians, political parties, and other political actors with an intellectual power to justify what they are saying and doing as well as their world view. In short, political ideology is interrelated set of ideas that guides or inspires political action. An ideology may be challenged by alternative ideologies.
There are various ideologies including Communism, Fascism, and Nazism, but in this article, I will discuss only three political ideologies: Revolutionary Democracy, Social Democracy, and Liberal Democracy.
Revolutionary Democracy: The statute of Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which is a governing political organization in Ethiopia since May 1991 says “EPRDF is governed by the principles of Revolutionary Democracy and struggles for the objectives as specified in its party program”. EPRDF believes that the development of a democratic system and sustainable development could be achieved through the implementation of the objectives of the Revolutionary Democracy and it struggles to rally people behind these objectives. The objectives of EPRDF were listed in its political program and they can be summarized as follows:
- Political objective– to put in place a stable multiparty democratic system whereby the human and democratic rights of citizens are fully respected;
- Economic Objective – to build a robust free market economy;
- Social Objective– to realize rapid social development;
- Foreign Affairs Policy Objectives– to create global and regional contexts fostering a national interest of building a democratic order and establishing a thriving market economy.
The Ethiopian version of Revolutionary Democracy was designed by Marxist Leninist League of Tigray (MLLT) which was founded on July 25, 1985 based on socialist ideology. EPRDF which was established by TPLF inherited the Revolutionary Democracy ideology and has ruled its four members (TPLF, ANDM, OPDO, and SEPDF) with strict ‘‘democratic centralism’’ that would not allow any internal factionalism. As confirmed by Lieutenant General Tsadikan Gebretinsae in his recent interview with Walta Television, TPLF had dominant influence and impact on EPRDF member organizations including shaping their ideology because TPLF was the one that generated ideas and played the major role in fighting against and removing the Derg regime (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3–JUC5aWzE ).
EPRDF statute, program, and other key documents do not provide the definition of Revolutionary Democracy. Therefore to get the definition of Ethiopian version of Revolutionary Democracy, we need to put together pieces. One of the senior members of TPLF Ms. Aregash Adane says the idea of Revolutionary Democracy came from socialism and it is based on the concept of class struggle where the party identifies its supporters to organize, educate, mobilize, and wants all members of the party ‘to sing the same party song’ and struggles to benefit the members and supporters of the party and attack those groups identified as enemies or non-supporters. Revolutionary Democracy does not accept compromise because it thinks in line of class categorization. The elementary democratic rights granted to women, youth, and other groups were not because of the democratic nature of TPLF/EPRDF but to enable the party to get support and stay in power (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdzWEKGVccc).
Mr. Bereket Simon who was one of the senior members of EPRDF for 29 years explained Revolutionary Democracy as a movement that abolishes the suppressive and undemocratic system and builds democratic system. It is revolutionary because the suppressive Ethiopian government structures which were built over years and transferred from one to another required radical changes which require revolution and it is democratic because it aims to build democratic system (Bereket Simon (2010 E.C), pp 28-32). Bereket argues that Revolutionary Democracy has nothing to do with socialism; rather it is a standalone ideology and an independent alternative. However, he didn’t deny that TPLF/EPRDF first started Revolutionary Democracy as a springboard to build socialism but dropped the idea of socialism following the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 and the defeat of the Socialist Camp.
Meles Zenawi said Revolutionary Democracy is different from Neo-Liberalism/Liberal Democracy because it brings both democracy and development through the leadership of government. He said Revolutionary Democracy uses “developmental state” strategy which was used in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to bring economic development and uses a different approach from those countries to bring democracy. According to Meles, almost all of the East Asian countries with the exception of North Korea and Burma (Myanmar) used developmental state strategy, but in Africa, only EPRDF and ANC use Revolutionary Democracy ideology and developmental state economic strategy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POU6H-CbKcI ). Unlike neo-liberalism, Meles argued, Revolutionary Democracy believes that the role of the government in development is crucial and beyond being ‘night watchman’ because it believes that without government intervention fast development couldn’t be achieved.
EPRDF claims to be the vanguard of the Ethiopian farmers, lower and middle income earning urban dwellers, and developmental actors. This clearly shows that the ideology of Revolutionary Democracy is closely related to the socialist ideology. Revolutionary Democracy is based on Lenin’s teaching that says revolution to triumph and the supremacy of the working class to be established, the social alliances of the worker with peasant is a key aspect of the revolutionary struggle. Article 14 of EPRDF Political Program (2017) says “Our Front is fundamentally an organization of the peasantry which is the main force behind Revolutionary Democracy. Consequently, to rally the peasantry around our objectives is the first and foremost task of our struggle. The broad masses in urban areas, workers, intellectuals, low- income earners of our society are also our allies and supporters. We shall, therefore, try hard to mobilize the urban populace to march forward with us. Private entrepreneurs engaged in real development also play a special (vital) role in our development endeavor. We shall struggle so that they do not succumb to parasitic mentality and instead become our partners in the development endeavors.”
The salient features of Revolutionary Democracy are its claim to be a vanguard party of peasantry, lower and middle income earning urban dwellers, its use of democratic centralism to control its organs from the center, and tolerating only “loyal opposition”. It strengthens its supremacy through the social alliance of peasants, the urban poor, the working class and “developmental” business persons. Ethiopian version of Revolutionary Democracy is a blend of centralism and qualified democracy. It is not a democracy for everybody. Like its economic policy of government-led economic development, the political policy of EPRDF was party/ government controlled. That is why EPRDF strictly controlled the media, political parties, and civic society organizations.
Some say that Ethiopian Revolutionary Democracy is an ambiguous ideology. For example, Jean-Nicolas Bach says “Abyotawi [revolutionary] democracy seems neither revolutionary nor democratic…. Then we have to consider abyotawi democracy as a symbol, a powerful discursive and political tool, rather than a genuinely revolutionary programme. This symbolism has been emphasizing the creation of a federal democratic constitution and a multiparty system representing the core of EPRDF’s legitimatizing strategy. For who has the power to define and use the ideology (i.e. currently a very restrictive circle around Meles Zenawi) abyotawi democracy has become a useful resource inextricable from the party and the regime themselves” (Jean-Nicolas Bach, 2011, P.653). EPRDF used Revolutionary Democracy doctrine as a tool to fight and exclude internal and external enemies. Bereket Simon discussed in details how EPRDF fought the idea of liberal democracy/free market economy prescribed from the Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank and International Monitory Fund) and other western capitalist countries using Revolutionary Democracy ideology.
According to Jean-Nicolas Bach, the notion of Revolutionary Democracy came from an opposition to capitalist liberal ideology and Lenin’s revolutionary project. Therefore, one can say that Revolutionary Democracy lays between Markist-Leninist-Maoist and liberal democracy. It takes some aspects from each, mixes them, and uses them. For example, TPLF which introduced Revolutionary Democratic ideology to Ethiopia and criticized for being Marxist-Leninist-Maoist and follower of Albanian model of socialism by rejecting liberal democracy, adopted liberal policies, government controlled principles of free market economy and privatization after the end of the Cold War. TPLF/ EPRDF made Revolutionary Democracy flexible and adaptable to international and national contexts. This helped TPLF/EPRDF to get support both at national and international levels for the last 29 years (1989-2018).
Currently, the relevance of Revolutionary Democracy to Ethiopian situation is declining. EPRDF realized this fact and planning to change its ideology. On its 11th General Assembly held in Hawassa from October 3-5, 2018, EPRDF decided that the ideology which will replace Revolutionary Democracy to be researched and presented on the next EPRDF orgazational General Assembly (https://www.ethiopianreporter.com/article/13256 ).
Social Democracy: Social democracy is an ideology that supports government interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic and capitalist economy. With the beginning of the industrial revolution, liberalism emerged as the first modern political and economic ideology in 19th century and provided both an explanation of and a justification for the transformations that the new system brought. The consequences of early capitalism—especially the dramatic inequalities and social dislocation—led to a backlash against liberalism and a search for alternatives. The most important and powerful challenge on the left came from Marxism. However, Marxism had little to offer those interested in actively responding to capitalism’s downsides. It was in response to these backdrops and frustrations that the social democratic movement emerged (Sheri Berman, n.d., PP 7-8). After World War II, social democracy which believes that unchecked capitalism/ free markets are dangerous and calls for the intervention of the government in the economy to protect a “common” or “public” interest became popular. As Sheri Berman wrote “After 1945, …Western European nations started to construct a new order, one that could ensure economic growth while at the same time protecting societies from capitalism’s destructive consequences” (Sheri Berman, n.d., p. 16). That new order was Social Democracy where governments committed themselves to managing markets and protecting society from the most destructive effects and negative social and political consequences of capitalism. Social democracy is mostly concerned with the wellbeing and equality of the society and sees the government as a tool to put the market economy at the service of the society.
According to Sheri Berman Social Democracy is a standalone ideology created to be an alternative to both Marxism and liberalism. He wrote “Modern scholars… have often failed to appreciate social democracy’s ideological distinctiveness. Most work on the subject in recent decades adopts one of two perspectives. The first… sees social democracy as an unstable halfway house between Marxism and liberalism, cobbled together from elements of incompatible traditions. In this view social democrats are socialists without the courage of revolutionary conviction or socialists who have chosen ballots over bullets. The second perspective, often held by supporters, sees the movement as an effort to implement particular policies or uphold certain values. In this view social democrats are basically the champions of the welfare state, or “equality,” or “solidarity.” Each of these views contains some truth, but both miss the larger picture. Correctly understood, social democracy is far more than a particular political program. Nor is it a compromise between Marxism and liberalism. And neither should it apply to any individual or party with vaguely leftist sympathies and an antipathy to communism. Instead, social democracy, at least as originally conceived, represented a full-fledged alternative to both Marxism and liberalism that had at its core a distinctive belief in the primacy of politics and communitarianism” (Sheri Berman, n.d., PP 3-4).
One of the founders of the social democratic movement August Bebel, who with Wilhelm Liebknecht cofounded the Social Democratic Workers’ Party in 1869 and then effected the merger of their party with the General German Workers’ Union in 1875 to form what came to be called the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) promoted social democracy with the belief that socialism must be installed through lawful means rather than by force. Today, there are many political parties including the Social Democratic Party of Germany and Labor Party of the United Kingdom that follow Social Democratic ideology. An American politician and one of the 2016 Democratic Party’s presidential candidates Bernie Sanders who describes himself as a democratic socialist is one of the admirers of Social Democracy, especially the Nordic countries’ (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) model of social democracy. As explained by Ephrem Madebo, Patriotic Ginbot Seven (AG7) and the party that AG7 is going to establish will follow Social Democratic ideology in Ethiopia (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KI6UdKQdzW4&t=2151s ).
To summarize, Social Democracy is a regulated version of capitalism that takes some aspects of capitalism and some aspects of socialism and use to implement social justice, equal access to wealth, health, justice and opportunities within a society and fair relations between the individual and society through the redistribution of resources.
Liberal Democracy: Liberal democracy traces its origins and its name to the Age of Enlightenment of 18th-century Europe where a relatively small group of Enlightenment intellectuals, who believed that human affairs should be guided by reason, rule of law, principles of liberty and equality rather on the basis of “noble blood” that claim connection to God or any other characteristic that is alleged to make one person superior to others. These ideas inspired the American Revolution and the French Revolution, which later gave birth to the ideology of Liberal Democracy. Compared to conservative monarchists who believe that questioning their right to rule was considered blasphemy and revolutionaries, the ideas of the supporters of Liberal Democracy were liberal and their ideology became to be known as Liberal Democracy.
According to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Liberal Democracy is “a democracy based on the recognition of individual rights and freedoms, in which decisions from direct or representative processes prevail in many policy areas”. Under Liberal Democracy, governments exist to serve the people and those who govern and those who are governed are equally subject to laws. Liberal Democracy provides three sets of rights: 1) Property rights (rights that protect asset holders and investors against expropriation by the state or other groups); 2) Political rights (the rights that guarantee free and fair electoral contests and allow the winners of such contests to determine policy subject to the constraints set by other rights); and 3) Civil rights (the rights that ensure equality before the law—nondiscrimination in the provision of public goods such as justice, security, education, and health) (Rodrik ,2016, p. 2-3).
A Liberal Democracy may take various forms such as constitutional monarchy (Australia, Belgium, Canada, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, the United Kingdom), or a republic (France, India, Italy, Ireland, the United States), or a parliamentary system (Australia, Canada, India, Israel, Ireland, Italy, the United Kingdom), or a presidential system (Indonesia, the United States), or a semi-presidential system (France, Romania). Liberal Democracy is now a mainstream ideology or government system in Western countries. Neoliberalism or Neoliberal Democracy is simply an updated version of Liberal Democracy with emphasis on economic liberalization policies such as privatization, austerity, deregulation, free trade and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society.
Dani Rodrik argues that Liberal Democracy has been difficult to establish and sustain in developing countries because of absence of a liberal tradition (ideational factor) and the prevalence of mass mobilization along identity (structural condition) (Dani Rodrik, 2016). Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s repeated warning and confirmation that Ethiopian Government led by him reached at the very edge to turn to be a dictator supports Rodrik’s argument (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBi45YRG-18). Dr. Abiy also said those people in Ethiopia who are used to incarceration and torture do not understand freedom, but dictatorship (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_baPd6Hj3zc ). His speech was in reference to Oromo people who have been in continuous imprisonment and torture under successive dictatorial regimes of Ethiopia. Colonel Abiy Ahmed’s speech which says those who are used to incarceration and torture do not understand freedom reminded me Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam who said when you spread gold for Ethiopian people they say it is the dung of a donkey ( yeItiyophiya hizb werq biyanetfulet fandiya naw yilal) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Z0MjKVDUiM ).
As it was the case in the past, there are the so called intellectuals/elites who are advising Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed to be a dictator. For example, Professor Mesfin Woldemariam advised Dr. Abiy to stop preaching about peace, love, and tolerance and pick up a sword and use it against his opponents and to put top TPLF officials in an extended detention/jail (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuETArqUzvg ) ; the former Derg official Shaleqa Dawit Woldegirorgis advised Dr. Abiy to ban the constitution to disband the parliament, issue new provisional decree and rule the country based on the provisional decree (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ArjgcrpsT5k&t=1387s ); ESAT journalist and the leaders of some of the opposition political organizations continuously advised Dr. Abiy to trash the current constitution. As Dr. Abiy said being a dictator in Ethiopia is easy and Ethiopian dictators can easily attract advisors and supporters. It seems that Dr. Abiy accepted the unsolicited pieces of advices to be a dictator and the journey of Ethiopian Government to be a dictator once again resumed by arresting individuals who have dissenting opinions in Wollega, Western Oromia, without due process of law (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KFiTG9gR0UE ). This clearly shows that the chance of Ethiopia to establish Liberal Democracy is slim.
Conclusion: Ethiopia’s political culture from Emperor Menelik II to EPRDF is a culture of dictatorship. As Ethiopia is not yet ready to institute and sustain genuine Liberal Democracy, it remains with two options: either to continue with the ideology of Revolutionary Democracy with its Developmental State economic policy or to move to Social Democracy which is not very far from the modified Revolutionary Democracy.
Even though Ethiopia claim having elected government, the regular elections conducted in Ethiopia didn’t bring democracy as the so called elected government routinely ignores constitutional limits on it power and violates the basic rights and freedoms of the citizens.
- Bereket Simon (2010 E.C), Tinsa’e Ze-Itiyophiya Kementa Menged.
- Dani Rodrik (2016), Is Liberal Democracy Feasible in Developing Countries? https://drodrik.scholar.harvard.edu/files/dani-rodrik/files/is_liberal_democracy_feasible_in_developing_countries.pdf
- EPRDF (2006), Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) Statute Meskerem, 1999 E.C./September, 2006.
- EPRDF PROGRAM, 2017 http://www.eprdf.org.et/documents/10184/304166/EPRDF+PROGRAM.4+docx.pdf/e7e283a6-a52c-4336-b7e7-06cb22795d14
- Jean-Nicolas Bach (2011), Abyotawi democracy: neither revolutionary nor democratic, a critical review of EPRDF’s conception of revolutionary democracy in post-1991 Ethiopia, Journal of Eastern African Studies, (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17531055.2011.642522
- Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and Revolutionary Democracy , Critique, Journal of Socialist Theories, December 2010, file:///C:/Users/asab46/Downloads/Leninarticle-Critique%20(1).pdf
- Sheri Berman (n.d), Understanding Social Democracy, http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~ces/conferences/left/left_papers/berman.pdf