Is Presidential System of Government Better for Ethiopia?
By Assefa A. Lemu, December 1, 2018
Introduction: The debate over presidential and parliamentary system of government has long history. The students of comparative politics done myriads of research in this area and produced plenty of research papers. Therefore, I have no intention to go into the details of the theoretical analysis of these two systems. Rather, I would like to focus on evaluating both systems in relation to Ethiopian politics. Up until the introduction of the current constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) in 1995, the top officials who were heads of state of Ethiopia were also heads of government of the country. However, the current Ethiopian constitution introduced a parliamentary form of government where the head of state and head of government are separate and held by different individuals.
In 2005 political debate for election, the founder and leader of Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) Mr. Bulcha Demeksa argued that presidential system of government is better for Ethiopia and vowed to struggle to replace the parliamentary system of government of Ethiopia with the presidential system. In 2009, OFDM merged with Oromo People’s Congress (OPC) led by Dr. Merera Gudina and established Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) which wants to use the parliamentary system of government (see the Political Program of OFC here: http://oromofederalistcongress.net/democracy.html ). Even though Mr. Bulcha retired from politics after serving as the member of the House of Peoples’ Representatives of Ethiopia for one term (2005-2010), he continued advocating for the presidential system through his book and interviews. For example in his book titled “My Life: My Vision for the Oromo and Other Peoples of Ethiopia” published in 2013, he argued that the parliamentary system should be dropped and replaced by a presidential system (P.200). I think Mr. Bulcha’s preference for presidential system over parliamentary was influenced by his experience with U.S. system and I doubt if it is based on the thorough analysis and evaluation of the political realities in Ethiopia.
After Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed came to power in April 2018 and said that he would have liked that he had been elected by all Ethiopians rather than being elected by one electoral region and becoming the leader of Ethiopia, the debate for replacing parliamentary system with presidential system has been re-ignited and picked by other political figures like Dr. Berhanu Nega of Arbegnoch Ginbot 7 and ESAT journalists fanned it (https://youtu.be/uqbY6A2pgyc?t=1064 ). Even though the political Program of Ginbot 7 Movement for Justice, Freedom, and Democracy (http://www.ginbot7.org/program-3/) doesn’t state the form of government the Movement wishes to introduce, its leader became one of the advocates for the presidential system of government. In his recent interview with Ethiopian Television (ETV) (https://youtu.be/5LBlIeEXQjM?t=1795 ), Dr. Berhanu Nega said he prefers presidential system of government because if the president is elected by all citizens, he or she will be a unifying figure and creates clear separation of government powers.
As I discussed in my previous articles (http://www.aigaforum.com/article2018/Ethiopia-and-the-Federal-System.htm and https://kichuu.com/making-ethiopian-constitution/ ), the current constitution of the FDRE is in peril from both within (from the officials of EPRDF led Government) and from outside ( from the leaders of opposition political parties and individuals opposing the current system of government in Ethiopia). As the Oromo saying goes “takku keninaan dhundhuma gaafatte”, which is slightly equivalent with the saying of “if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile”, the recent concession given by the Ethiopian Government to the opposition political organization is leading to changing the constitution and system of government. The “chickens who broke EPRDF’s egg from inside out” and claimed that they gave life to EPRDF which was on the verge of death are giving a way for other chickens that are eager to smash EPRDF’s egg from outside in to take life out of it (the metaphor of “breaking the egg” in relation to EPRDF was first used by Dr. Abiy Ahmed on the opening of 11th General Assembly of EPRDF held in October 2018 in Hawasa (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqwhOBx7krw ). Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed who is leading the group that broke “EPRDF’s egg” and opened a way to undo some of what his party EPRDF done in the past 27 years is becoming another Mikhail Gorbachev who through his Glasnost (openness) and Prestroika (restructuring) policies dismantled what the Communist Party of the Soviet Union did and disbanded USSR. From the November 27, 2018 meeting of Dr. Abiy with 81 political party leaders, we heard that his Medemer policy will lead to the revision or change of the constitution (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dxCOD-stkM). What we haven’t heard yet is whether Medemer will lead to the collapse or disbandment of the FDRE or not. The current move of EPRDF leadership and the exaggerated commending reminds me the Oromo saying “sobi jaji, dhaqee haadu’u”, meaning praise him fictitiously so that let him go and die. I am in support of the current political change in Ethiopia, but I have worries regarding the direction the change is heading. Some groups are trying to put as many harnesses on the change to pull it to the direction they want and others are simply spectators of the show without taking balancing measures. As Dr. Berhanu Nega put it in his recent interview with the Voice of America, Amharic Service, all they (Ginbot 7) want to do is “to keep their eyes on the ball” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4tK1PSpheU ). In politics “the ball” is political (government) power.
Branches of Government: Normally, government has three branches—Legislative/Parliamentary branch (the branch that makes laws), Executive branch (the branch that enforce or implement laws), and Judiciary branch (the branch that interpreter laws). The main distinction of these branches is based on their role in making, implementing, and interpreting the laws of a country. The basis for categorizing a form of government either as parliamentary or presidential system is the relationship between executive and legislative branches of government. Under presidential system, there is a clear distinction (clear separation of power) between executive and the legislative branches. However, under the parliamentary system, some members of the executive branch including the prime minister will be members of the legislative. Therefore, there is intersection or overlap of duties. Regarding accountability, under parliamentary system, the executive branch is accountable to the legislative branch from where it got power. But, under presidential system, the chief executive (the president) is accountable to the people not to the legislative.
Why Presidential System of Government for Ethiopia? Presidential system is a form of government where the president is elected by the people and serves as both head of state and head of government and independent from the legislative branch. On the other hand, parliamentary system is a form of government where the executive branch, at least certain members of the executive including the head of the executive branch (the prime minister), is part of the legislative branch and accountable to the legislative. Therefore, the presidential form of the government in which one individual has strong power as both head of state and head government and not accountable to the legislative and has personalized leadership is much closer to the Habesha political culture dominated by kingship. To the contrary, the parliamentary form of government in which party (group) leadership and institutionalized administration is common is more close to the Oromo Gada system and to the political cultures of most of the non- Habesha peoples in Ethiopia. Under the presidential system, the legislative and executive branches of government compete against each other rather than cooperating and sometimes that competition leads to stalemate. This was observed several times in the U.S. under the Obama administration where both the executive and congress/legislative repeatedly failed to achieve what they wanted to achieve.
Thus, the preference for the presidential system is not only about its benefits for governance but also about the continuity of Habesha political culture. One of the differences between Habesha and Oromo political cultures is the credit taking culture. In the Habesha political culture, the king or other individual leader such as Yegobez Aleka takes all the credits and become popular. In addition, since there is no limitation of term of office, the king or another leader stay in power for a longer time and instill his legacy that will be remembered under his name. In the Oromo political culture, achievements and credits belong to the team, not to an individual leader. Abba Gada (the father of the period) is considered as a team leader and his term in office cannot exceed eight years (one gada). Unlike that of the Habesha political culture which is more of personalized, Oromo political culture revolves around team or group. Therefore, the competition over the choice of form of government is about the choice of political culture. The debate about yezeginet (individual) politics versus group politics also boils down to the choice of political culture—individual versus group.
As stated under article 26 of the revised constitution of Ethiopia of 1955, the supreme authority over all the affairs of Ethiopia was vested in the Emperor who was both head of state and head of government and had all the authority to determine the organization, power, and duties of the executive branch. The Emperor had all the rights to select, appoint, and dismiss the prime minister and all the ministers (Art. 66 of the revised Ethiopian Constitution of 1955).
Derg also used the presidential form of government, but the president was elected by the National Shengo (Assembly), not directly by the people. According to Article 85 of the constitution of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) of 1987, the president of the PDRE was the head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the Council of Ministers (the highest executive and administrative organ of the PDRE) was accountable to him. The president of PDRE had the power to appoint and dismiss the prime minister (the executive) and the president and vice president of the Supreme Court (the judiciary).
In a nutshell, the governments of Emperor Haileselassie and Derg somehow had the structure of the presidential form of government. Under the two regimes, Ethiopia was a unitary state in which the top individual official used to dictate his will from the center. This was the political reality in the past and this is what some groups want to bring back.
Why Not Parliamentary System? The argument that some Ethiopians and individuals of Ethiopian origin make to change the current parliamentary system of Ethiopia to presidential system is that the current politics in Ethiopia is dominated by ethnic or identity or group politics which weakened “Ethiopiawinet”. Therefore, they argue, delaying the election until the ideas of group politics fades out in the mind of the people and replaced with individual (yezeginet) politics and making prominent Ethiopian individual to be elected by all Ethiopians eligible to vote can restore “Ethiopiwinet”. They also argue that since others are ‘yehasab deha’ and cannot present popular and visionary individuals who will be elected by all Ethiopian voters, presidential system will give them better chance to have their candidate chosen because their group has individuals who are known by all or by the majority. This is baseless and flawed argument, but it is one of their political strategies to take power and they are repeating these arguments over and over again. Even though the historical inequalities still have some implications, unless the definition of “Ethiopian” given under Article 6 of the current Ethiopian constitution is changed, I don’t think that we see again the domination of one ethnic group when there is a call for “yeager shumagle” or “yeItophiya mihuran” or “tawaki Itophiyawuyan” because all peoples who live in the territory of Ethiopia are now considered equally Ethiopians regardless of the language they speak and the religion they follow.
Pro-presidential system groups argue that, under presidential system, the head of the executive branch (the president) is directly elected by the people and accountable to the people. However, this is not necessarily true. For example, in 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton got 65,853,516 popular vote (48.5% of vote) and Donald Trump got 62,984,825 popular vote (46.4% of vote) (https://edition.cnn.com/election/2016/results/president ). Had the determination was made based on the direct vote of the people, Ms. Clinton who got more direct vote would have been the president of the United States. However, the decision was made not on the basis of the number of direct vote, but through the process of Electoral College in which Mr. Trump got 306 out of 538 electoral votes and Ms. Clinton got 232 out of 538. Those admirers of the U.S. style of presidential system need to tell us why an indirect election where the voters elect a body of representatives which elect the political office holder on their behalf is considered appropriate for the U.S. presidential election and considered inappropriate for electing the prime minister for Ethiopia. If the selection of a president for the United States by 538 electors (representatives) is considered right, why the selection of a prime minister for Ethiopia by 547 representatives is considered wrong? The voters’ voices which exist behind the 538 U.S. electors also exist behind 547 Ethiopian Peoples’ Representatives.
Even if Ethiopia uses other styles of presidential system where the president is elected through direct election where the voters directly cast ballots to elect the president like in Kenya or Uganda, that will not guarantee the formation of good governance in Ethiopia. Studies show that “strict accountability between elected officials and voters may not lead to better governance outcomes” (John Gerring et al (n.d) P. 9 https://www.bu.edu/sthacker/files/2012/01/Are-Parliamentary-Systems-Better.pdf .
Furthermore, the argument which says “Parliamentarism may work fine for ethnically homogenous countries like Japan, Israel, or England, but in highly diverse countries such as Ethiopia (80 ethnic groups), and Nigeria (250 ethnic groups) such a system invites frictions and rivalries between different ethnic and religious groups” ( https://mereja.com/index/224921) is not valid. Studies show the opposite. Parliamentary system is proven to work better in multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries like India. In his article titled “Parliamentary and Presidential Systems of Government With Special Reference to India”, Professor Subrata Mukherjee wrote “With growing ethnic, tribal and linguistic consciousness a charismatic leader or a strong symbolic presidential authority may become ruinous. In the mass societies of today which are inherently plural a successful political process is to be accommodative and participatory and in this crucial area the presidential system is grossly inadequate as it restricts politics instead of expanding it. It polarizes politics rather than accommodate even regional aspirations, extreme ideological parties and minority organizations” (http://paperroom.ipsa.org/papers/paper_55397.pdf ). His study shows that the presidential system is inappropriate for multi ethnic countries like India. He concluded the parliamentary system is better suited to heterogeneous countries like India. The same is true for Ethiopia which is one of the multi-ethnic countries.
Conclusion: Above, I briefly discussed the characteristics of presidential and parliamentary forms of government and some of the driving sugar coated reasons for changing the current parliamentary form of government of Ethiopia to presidential system. The Oromo Gada system which operates based on the rotation of five parties (Birmaji, Horota, Michille, Dulo, and Robale) proved that the parliamentary system accommodates pluralism, efficient for administration, and make the administration more accountable. Neither Abba Gada who serve as the father of the nation or president, nor Abba Bokku who is the head of the Hayyu Council (cabinet ministers) and serve as a prime minister, nor Abba Chafee who is the head of the parliament (the Speaker) has monopoly of power. All Gada officials work as a team in collaboration and in coordination. The Gada system encourages having strong institutions rather than depending on strong individual. The strong relationship between parliamentary system and good governance found by some studies is vivid under Oromo Gada system.
Both parliamentary and presidential systems got their advantages and limitations. As John Gerring et al summarized in their article titled Are Parliamentary Systems Better? “…parliamentarism fosters a style of politics and policymaking that is probably more institutionalized, centered as it is on political parties, while presidentialism fosters a more personalized and free-floating style of leadership centered on individual politicians and smaller, less established organizational entities” (https://www.bu.edu/sthacker/files/2012/01/Are-Parliamentary-Systems-Better.pdf ). Under presidential system, there are two separate elections- one for the president and the other for the legislature (member of parliament). However, under parliamentary system, there is only one national election, the parliamentary election, because the prime minister is first elected as a member of the parliament and then elected by the parliament members as a prime minister.
In short, the choice of form of government for Ethiopia must be based on the current and future needs of the country, not on maintaining the old political culture and mere objective of introducing change.