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Understanding the electoral reform

Understanding the electoral reform

After several rounds of negotiations, they finally agreed to amend the existing political parties’ registration proclamation. The amendment was tantamount to increasing the total number of seats in the parliament and significant shift in the rules of the game to hold political power, writes Neamin Ashenafi.

Following a lengthy and tiresome discussion to set the agenda, the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and some 15 opposition parties started the formal session of the so-called political parties’ negotiation forum a few months ago.

And first on the agenda was negotiating over the existing proclamation that governs political parties’ registration: the Revised Political Parties’ Registration Proclamation No. 573/2008. After several rounds of negotiations, they finally agreed to amend the existing political parties’ registration proclamation. They agreed on amendments; however, entertained severe criticisms by commentators. One such criticism was against placing stringent barriers to enter into the Ethiopian political system.

Apart from this, leaders of the opposition political parties, especially those who walked away from the ongoing negotiations, said repeatedly that the problems that occurred in the political landscape of the country is not about how to get registered as political parties. It is rather the absence of equal and level playing field for all players in the game.

Though the leaders and members of the opposition political parties and individual commentators express their concern about the gaps in the ongoing negotiations between the ruling party and the opposition political parties, the actors that are engaged in the negotiations remain optimistic. Nevertheless, around end of last week, the negotiating parties have finally agreed to introduce a mixed electoral system in Ethiopia.

The parties agreed to introduce the mixed electoral system following negotiations for the past two months over the Amended Electoral Law of Ethiopia, especially Proclamation No. 532/2007. The sides have been haggling over different articles of this proclamation with a view of widening the political space.

IN-DEPTH
Getaneh Balcha                                                                                                                       Wubishet Assefa

Nevertheless, it was quite apparent that both sides come into the negotiations pretty much convinced that the electoral rule is probably due for revision. In fact, they even have the idea that the country would shift to the mixed electoral system. However, what was not clear was the proportion of simple majority vs. proportional electoral systems in the new hybrid system.

At the beginning of the negotiations over this specific article, the EPRDF proposed 90 percent to be decided by majority vote (first-past-the-post) while the remaining 10 percent to be administered by the proportional electoral rule. Meanwhile, opposition parties proposed a different arrangement – with the 11 parties that forged unity for this purpose – proposing a 50-50 arrangement.

During the first session, both the ruling and opposition political parties presented their justifications about their propositions and conducted a heated debate but failed to reach an agreement and made an appointment for another round of negotiations.

Subsequently, the parties got together and again proposed their modified numbers towards the composition of the mixed electoral system. This time around, the ruling party amended its proposal to 85-15 while the 11 parties proposed 60-40, each side supporting its positions with arguments. However, the negotiators again failed to reach an agreement and made another appointment.

Finally, the EPRDF again amended its proposal to 80-20 and the 11 parties argued in favor of 60-40, with each side asserting its position to be final. Though the 11 parties that proposed the arrangement of 60-40 decided to stick to their proposal they finally surrendered and accepted the proposal presented by the ruling party.

However, prior to accepting the proposal by the ruling party and knowing 80-20 is the final proposal by the ruling party, the 11 parties that forged unity for the purpose of this ongoing negotiation asked the mediators that they be given some time so as to discuss the matter with their respective party members. Obtaining the green light from the mediators, the 11 opposition parties finally accepted the ratio of the mixed electoral system proposed by the ruling party.

This agreement too was not immune from severe criticisms. Both individual commentators and leaders of the opposition political parties, especially parties who were questioning the genuine nature of the negotiations such as Semayawi Party a.k.a. Blue and the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum a.k.a. Medrek were quick to criticize the agreement.

Though these political parties were not part of the negotiations, they are highly skeptical about the entire process and the outcomes of the negotiations. However, Shiferaw Shegute, one of the negotiators representing the ruling party, said that the agreement is very important to widen the political space in the country.

However, the agreement about shifting the electoral system to mixed is not welcomed by the parties which are not part of the negotiation and individual commentators. The group argued that the negotiations are the result of the protest and unrest in different parts of the country and was aimed only at quelling it. But, they also argue, the negotiations are more focused on the electoral system. Where the major issues and demands of the public that caused the negotiations remain largely ignored.

In this regard, the former president of the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), Mushe Semu, on his part, argues that the negotiations have lost its way. “At the beginning, there were numerous issues which were tabled for negotiations. Most of the demands of the public relate to administration, service, unemployment and uneven distribution of resources and wealth. These issues were expected to be addressed by the negotiations; however, finally, it became all about the electoral system and the legal procedures pertinent to the election of the country.”

He further argued that the problems associated with elections in Ethiopia are not about representation; in fact, it is far from the real problem. The mother of all problems in the country is failure to conduct free, fair and transparent elections. He also asserted, “The demand of the public is not about representation of the opposition political parties in the house; but to have free, fair and transparent elections. Therefore, when the opposition parties agreed on the mixed electoral system, it means that they agree that there are free, fair and transparent elections in the country.”

The ongoing negotiations are the result of the promises by President Mulatu Teshome (PhD) and Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn during the opening speech of the joint houses of parliament a year ago.

This is the major argument and justification that makes the leaders of the opposition political parties and individual commentators skeptical about the entire process and the outcomes.

Vice Chairman of Blue Party, Getaneh Balcha, also shared Mushe’s argument and stated that the question of the public is all about having genuine elections but the outcome of the negotiations have not addressed these concerns. He further argued, “Blue believes that the negotiations should have incorporated many other stakeholders. But vibrant stakeholders including Blue drifted away from the negotiations because it demanded genuine negotiations. And as we expected, the outcome of the negotiations have not addressed the real problems of the public. It is rather making a mockery out of the demand of the public and the concept of democracy. This is also the routine diversionary tactic by the ruling party to shift the demand and attention of the public.”

Tilahun Endeshaw of Medrek also questions both the authenticity of the negotiations and the political parties which are taking part in the negotiations. For him, the negotiations and agreement between the two sides is like putting the cart before the horse since it contributed nothing to address and sort out the ongoing protest and unrest in the country.

Following the agreement by the ruling party and the opposition political parties, the countries electoral system will be shift to mixed electoral system, and hence Ethiopia switched to a mixed-member system where the arrangement will follow 80 percent of the vote will be allotted to the existing simple majority while the remaining 20 percent is allotted to proportional representation.

According to various literatures, mixed electoral systems attempt to combine the positive attributes of both majority and proportional electoral systems. In a mixed system, there are two electoral systems using different formulae running alongside each other. The votes are cast by the same voters and contribute to the election of representatives under both systems.

Mixedmember electoral systems can be described as a mixture of two principles of electoral system designs: majoritarian systems, which usually have singleseat constituencies and proportional systems, which have multiseat districts, usually with party lists, and typically produce parliamentary representation that largely mirrors the vote shares of multiple parties.

In the last decade, significant challenges to government legitimacy fuelled the issue of electoral reform in Ethiopia. As a result the issue of electoral reform has become the subject of serious debate in the country with all the parties favoring alternative systems to the first-past-the-post rule.

The negotiations aside, the merit of the proposed mixed electoral rule is also an important matter in the current political debate. Among other things, the total number of seats in the House of People’s Representatives (HPR) is projected to grow by 110 seats bring the total seats to 657. Nevertheless, legal experts like Wubishet Mulat doubt the proposition of the ruling EPRDF about the new reform and whether it will improve representation in Ethiopia.   

“In my view, the ratio of mixed parallel system doesn’t bring any substantial change to political space in the country. Because first of all, even if the opposition parties won all the additional 110 seats in the parliament they can’t play a significant role given the reaming 547 seat is controlled by the ruling party.”

Apart from this there is a one percent threshold to share in the 20 percent allocation, he explains, this means that since the system is mixed parallel the opposition political parties are expected to get at least one percent of the total vote. Under this electoral system the voter is expected to cast two votes: one for candidates and the other parties, he told The Reporter.

“Had it been mixed member parallel system, voters cast their vote in the first-past-the-post system and their vote will be counted both in the stations and at the center. And the winners at the stations will qualify directly and again based on the votes counted at the center the parties will win seats according to the proportion of the total vote that they were able to secure,” he elaborates.

However, Wubishet argues that this does not apply to the current reform proposed by the parties since it is mixed parallel; not mixed member parallel.

Therefore, under mixed parallel voters will vote both for the first-past-the-post and again vote for the parties. “In this regard, if for example there is 30 million voters, a party that gets below one percent will be automatically disqualified, but above all to get at least one seat in the parliament one has to get at least 300,000 votes,” he said.

However, considering the capacities of the opposition political parties in Ethiopia this would be a tough task and hence the agreement to shift in to mixed parallel electoral system does not bring the desired improvement in representation and in terms of widening the political space, Wubishet concludes.

The newly proposed electoral system, however, is going to require constitutional amendment, something that the ruling party feels strongly about. According to the constitution, the number of HPR seats “shall not exceed 550” and with the addition of 110 new ones the resulting 657 seats would be way above constitutional limitation.  

Reducing the level of wasted vote which is commonplace under the first-past-the-post system is mentioned as the main advantage of introducing proportional electoral rule into the mix.

The core debate concerns whether countries should adopt majoritarian systems which prioritizes government effectiveness and accountability, or proportional systems, which promote greater fairness to minority parties and more diversity in social representation.

As the two electoral systems have their own unique nature, the effectiveness of the introduction of a mixed system to address the demand of the public and bring change to the country’s political systems unrest and protests will be seen in the future.