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Ethiopia : Rebuking the justifications of authoritarian rule

(By: Mubarak Keder)

Authoritarian rule, in contrast to its counterpart democracy, takes various forms. The most common ones are being: personal, military, one-party and electoral authoritarianism. Among these, electoral authoritarianism stands out as rather complicated and tricky in that, it possesses the essential democratic institutions and manipulates them to claim a democratic government and legitimize its rule while practically remaining an authoritarian.

The current political system in Ethiopia possesses all the characteristic form of electoral authoritarianism. Since it holds power in 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime tarnished all the attributes, basic principles and institutions of a democratic system while insisting on being democratic, they practice “democracy as a deception”. One of the major democratic facades of the regime is the regular multi party election. However, the idea of election is the ability of the people to be informed about the available choices which are competing on a fairground and to choose among them. As Todd Landman and Niel Robinson (The SAGE handbook of comparative politics) noted, “Citizens who vote on the basis of induced preferences are no less constrained than those choosing from a manipulated set of alternatives. Unless parties and candidates enjoy free and fair access to the public space, the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box mirror their structurally induced ignorance.” The EPRDF regime structured the political system with the opposition parties as many enough to claim multiparty system and too fragmented and weak not to pose a threat to the regime.

In the context of the current authoritarian rule in Ethiopia – besides the opportunity he missed in transforming the country into a stable democratic state with the power and influence he have had in his 21 years in power – the late prime minister Meles Zenawi will be credited for establishing a strong authoritarian regime and leaving it on a too-strong position to be challenged by oppositions. Authoritarian regimes that are established around a single dictatorial figure are, in relative term, short-lived as the dictator who ruled the country dies or gets ousted; the regime will crumble or at least weakens. On the other hand, those authoritarian regimes that have a well-established organization with adoptive structure like the Ethiopian EPRDF stay in power for longer period.

Different editions of Democracy index (The economist intelligence unit ) categorized Ethiopia under authoritarian regime with a 0.00 score in electoral process and pluralism on a scale of 0 to 10. Under EPRDF the people of Ethiopia have been reduced from their rightful position of being in control of power to subjects who do not have any say in their country’s affairs. Taking these facts into account the most basic question to ask would be : How the government justify its oppressive rule to its people. Moreover, how international organizations and countries are willing to overlook EPRDF’s system of governance and bought its theatrical performance to appear as a democratic regime.

One of the most common arguments in defense of authoritarian rule is that, economic development leads to democratic rule. Others go further to argue “bread first, ballot later” which according to Patrick O’Neil (Essentials of comparative politics) infers “… in order to build a strong market economy, political rights must be restricted. According to this view, by restricting political rights the government can focus on constructing the necessary environment for a market economy and attract investment by limiting the kind of turmoil that might come about in a new or weak democracy.” Further, the government claims the role of guardianship, arguing taking those unjustified actions are necessary to protect the security, stability and unity of the country. To this effect, the government portrays oppositions and dissents as enemy of the country and quite often labels them as “terrorists”.

Despite the regime’s argument to justify their authoritarian rule, the facts show, taking foreign aid out of the equation, poor democracies tend to have a better human development index (HDI) than poor dictatorships. This is not because they spend higher percentage of their GDP on health care and education, rather due to the fact that allocated resources will be used efficiently, which is strongly correlated to freedom of expression and transparency, consequently accountability and lesser corruption. Democratic countries are less vulnerable to a large scale famine. Most of all, under authoritarian rule the country is in a continuing state of political instability and abuse of civil liberties.

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