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Underrated local elections

Underrated local elections

Zemelak Ayitenew (PhD) is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Federal Studies, Addis Ababa University, and Extraordinary Associate Professor at Dullah Omar Institute, University of the Western Cape. He is a constitutional lawyer specializing on local governments in Ethiopia. Zemelak did his first degree in Law (LLB) at Addis Ababa University. He then served as an instructor at the Law School of Jimma University before leaving for further studies to South Africa. He earned his second and third degrees in the Western Cape University at the Community Law Centre, South Africa. Zemelak published various articles on internationally recognized journals dealing with the legal framework governing local governments or the lowest tiers of government in Ethiopia (kebeles, weredas, special weredas, zones, and the like) and their performance. He also published a book entitled “Local Government in Ethiopia: Advancing Development and Accommodating Ethnic Minorities.” Solomon Goshu of The Reporter sat down with Zemelak to discuss the upcoming local elections in the country and issues pertinent to local governments. Excerpts:

The Reporter: The last five local elections took place basically without the participation of the opposition. Ethiopia is to hold another local election next year. Would things be different this time around?

Zemelak Ayitenew (PhD): Well, there is nothing new that makes one think the next local elections will be any different from the previous ones. Indeed, the ruling party and the opposition are in negotiations with a declared aim of making future elections more attractive to everyone. They have reportedly agreed to make significant changes on the political party registration proclamation. It has been also reported that the ruling party has agreed to reform the electoral system and, to that effect, to amend the Constitution. This is indeed encouraging. Yet, the entire focus still seems to be on national elections. The parties in the negotiations are only those that are considered to be ‘national parties’. Regional and local parties are not part of the deal.  As far as I know, local government and local elections are not in the agenda of the negotiations. I am not sure if the intended reform on the electoral system also applies to local elections. In any case, the negotiations and reforms seem to be undertaken with the 2020 general elections in mind and I think there is no sufficient time to test the reforms in the upcoming local elections. 

Despite the fact that the opposition is not in a position to compete and win seats in local councils well appreciated, you, in your works, claim that the opposition lack interest in even participating in local elections. What possible factors explain this lack of interest?

As you have implied in your question the realization that they have no chance of winning in local elections in itself is a disincentive for the opposition to participate in the election. In addition, the fact that we have now a multilevel government system, with three autonomous levels of government, I mean constitutionally speaking, federal, regional and local levels, does not seem to have sunk into everyone’s mind. There is this mind-set, I guess a vestige of our former unitary system that the centre is everything and controlling it automatically leads to controlling the periphery.

Therefore, I think the opposition parties, especially those that are known as national opposition parties, deem a good strategy to focus on the centre. As I have said previously, the institutional and political challenges that they raise during national and local elections are more or less the same which include unfavourable legal framework and political repression. Yet, these did not stop them from taking part in national elections. They, however, readily boycott local elections.

The Ethiopian opposition support base is considered to be at the lowest level in recent years. But the number of candidates they need to field to take part in local elections exceeds 3 million. How much is the local elections affected by this and the post-2005 elections legal reforms? 

The reform that increased the number of local council seats, at kebele, wereda, city, and zone level, from 600,000 to 3.6 million are also said to form a part of the post-2005 election backlash. It was introduced in 2008. ‘Enhancing the people’s political representation and participation’ was the justification that the ruling party proffered for this change. However, it is clear that the reform has the effect of–if it was not the intention of the ruling party to do so–making virtually impossible for opposition parties to win in local elections since only the ruling party has the organisational and financial capacity to mobilise three million candidates.

One Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) senior official said to me that EPRDF considers local councils more as a platform for direct public participation than for political bickering of parties, implying that multipartism at local government level is not critical. Indeed, there are scholarly views that local government is all about ‘bread and butter’ and that it should be immune from multiparty politicking. If that is the intention of the ruling party, perhaps conducting local elections on non-party basis, in which individuals could campaign and run for local councils as independent candidates, could have also been considered. I guess they do that in China. That, however, have had its own problems.

I am not sure if the opposition parties have raised the issue of reducing the number of local council seats in their on-going negotiations with the ruling party. I am of the view that this needs to be reformed not merely to make it possible for opposition parties to win some local council seats, but to create a healthy environment for local democracy.

Some consider local election as instrument of securing a vote of confidence for the ruling party rather than democratic election in its own right. Do you agree with this assessment?

As I said, the institutional frameworks governing local elections are skewed in favour of the ruling party and it is not possible to expect a different outcome in local elections if this continues to be the case.

Some experts advise that to be able to compete with a highly dominant incumbent like the EPRDF, the opposition has to start from local level and build on it step by step before aiming for the federal government. On the contrary, as you have argued in your works, the opposition has as a strategy to first control the federal government which certainly result in controlling the local level? Which approach do you support?

I am in fact one of those who argue that opposition parties should focus on sub-national governments and create a strong political foundation at local and regional levels before vying for the federal government. From exclusively electoral point of view, and putting aside other factors, I would say EPRDF is in control of the federal government because it is in control of local councils, not the other way round. 

In an Op-Ed, I wrote just before the 2013 local elections, I have argued that being in control of certain local government units would allow opposition parties to test their policies, gain experiences of governance, and avoid what they often claim are hindrances for their electoral successes i.e. repressive local officials who prevent them from having direct contact with the public. This indeed presupposes institutional and political environment that allow the opposition to contest in local elections with a reasonable expectation that they can win. Hence, unless the problems I raised above are resolved, including reducing the size of local councils, it is not likely that the opposition will have the incentive to take part, and be successful, in local elections. This is why I said above that the opposition, who are in negotiation with the ruling party, should bring the issue of local government and local elections to the table.

What can the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) and the media do to improve the status of local elections?

Local elections in our country are held quietly and without much drama. It is now less than a year before the next local elections are held. But there is not even a single report from the media I came across on the preparation that parties and the NEBE are making for the elections. I did not also hear a single declaration from the NEBE regarding the upcoming local elections. In fact, I checked the NEBE’s website and there was nothing on it about the upcoming local elections. The media would have been by now inundated with election related news and reports if it were general elections. This shows the low esteem with which local government and local democracy is held in this country of ours.

There is a little understanding how significant a role local democracy can play for the overall democratisation process in the country. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French philosopher who carefully studied the American democracy, maintains that America is a democracy principally because of its local democracy. On the other hand, a mention of local government in our country brings to mind a small dictator. We need thus to work more on democratizing our local governments. The media needs to work in terms of creating awareness on the importance of local democracy.   


What can the federal and regional government do in this respect?

Local government and local authorities have been used and treated for long as instruments of control, as opposed to democratic institutions, by those in charge at the centre. Not much has changed, if at all, in this regard even if our Constitution envisages, though implicitly, that local government would be a level of government that is democratically constituted. There are certain measures that the federal and regional governments can take to make local governments democratic institutions. They should recognize that local government is envisioned to be a level of government in its own right, not an administrative agent of the two levels of government.

The federal government should hence introduce a constitutional reform to the effect that local government is explicitly recognized–there is already an implicit recognition–as an autonomous level of government. There are certain legal measures some of the regional states have taken which undermined the political autonomy of weredas and cities and, hence, their democratic character. A case in point is Proclamation 116 (2006) of the Oromia Regional State which denied all city councils in the region the power to select and appoint their own mayors and transferred this power to the regional president. I am of the view that this passed without any constitutional challenge due to the lack of explicit recognition of local government as autonomous level government in the federal Constitution. 

Regional governments should introduce reforms in their constitutions to clearly define local government functions and to provide them with adequate source of revenue. A critical reform in this regard is making mandatory block grants that regional governments transfer to weredas and, to some extent, cities. Right now, the functional competences of weredas are not clearly defined in the regional constitutions, except to some extent in the Tigray Regional State’s constitution. Moreover, block grants that the regions transfer to weredas, and which cover over 70 percent of their expenditures, are simply ‘grants’ as opposed to ‘entitlements’ for the weredas. Defining the competences of local government is critical for local democracy since a party has no incentive to run in local elections only to be in control of a local council that has no clear functional competences to legislatively act on. Making regional block grants mandatory is also vital to avoid the possibility of a regional government refusing to transfer block grants to a wereda or a city that chooses to be governed by a party other than the one governing the region.