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Democracy or Autocracy?
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- Democracy or Autocracy?

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Raphael Makonnen

Addis Ababa, April 18, 2003 (Addis Tribune): What constitutes a democratic state? As the United States now attempts to build a democratic system in Iraq; as legislative elections in Nigeria - the "largest democracy in Africa" - are marred by religious and ethnic violence; as Freedom House - a respected international advocacy group - rates Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia as among the most repressive regimes in the world; we must ask ourselves: What is the state of democracy in Ethiopia?

For some observes of the Ethiopian political scene, the answer is a simple syllogism. If a country has elections and the people vote, then the country is democratic. Under this logic (some contend) Ethiopia had general elections in 1995 and 2000 in which the EPRDF was overwhelmingly returned to power. Moreover, international observer missions approved of the 2000 elections and even the recently issued 2002 Human Rights Report from the United States Department of State asserted that, "According to international and local observers, the 2000 national elections [in Ethiopia] generally were free and fair in most areas." Such a statement, some believe, should weigh heavily in favor of those who judge Ethiopia to be a democracy.

Yet, there are those who view the political dispensation in Ethiopia very differently. They argue that state structures have prevented and still prevent opposition groups from mounting a credible challenge to the EPRDF government. They aver that the current government of Ethiopia has wantonly violated the right to association and assembly; that freedom of speech is curtailed by the practical limits placed on political speech (for example, opposition groups can not operate radio stations); and that arbitrary imprisonments, detentions, and killings by the Ethiopian security apparatus intimidate electors and political parties. These opposition groups look to the same 2002 Human Rights Report, and read that, "The [Ethiopian] Government's human rights record remained poor" and "The number of unlawful killings [including political killings] during the year was estimated to be between 1,000 and 1,500." Moreover, they read about the intimidation and killings of members of the Council of Alternative Forces for Peace and Democracy in Ethiopia (CAFPDE) and the Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Coalition (SEPDC). From this they draw the logical conclusion that Ethiopia is, in fact, an autocratic state.

How is this apparent dichotomy possible? How can a seemingly "democratic" system of elections also countenance and lead to such grave violations of civil liberties and fundamental human rights?

The answer lies in the incorrect conflation of "electoral democracy" and "liberal democracy." What is the difference between these two species of democracy? An electoral democracy, in the strict sense, is one where regular elections are held in a relatively free and fair manner (i.e. there isn't much ballot rigging or overwhelming political violence). A liberal democracy, on the other hand, is one where there are independent legislative and judicial institutions, respect for minority and individual rights, a constitutional bill of rights, and a strong independent civil society. In other words, a liberal democracy has political institutions and a political culture that decentralizes power and creates an accountable and transparent government.

Political scientists have long recognized this distinction. The question we must pose ourselves is whether Ethiopia is simply an electoral democracy or rather a liberal democracy?

Let us concede, for the sake of argument that the 2000 general elections in Ethiopia were relatively free and fair in the strict sense that most people who wanted to vote could vote. (We will set aside the reports of irregularities in the Southern Regions and other outright power-plays in 1995.) In such cases, one has to look at the institutional structure of a society to determine whether there really was a process that allowed the people to choose their representatives freely and fairly. The Swedish based intergovernmental organization Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance has noted that in many countries in Africa, "control of power is sometimes so effective, that although elections take place, the ruling party can use the state apparatus to hinder the opposition forces to such an extent that the opposition has no real chance of winning national elections." They list Ethiopia (among other countries) as just such a "paper-democracy."

It is evident that under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's TPLF/EPRDF government, opposition political parties must operate within a crucible of pro-EPRDF political institutions. They are virtually unable to get their messages out and campaign effectively. For example, when the state perceives a political threat, it is quick to use its monopoly on the "legitimate" use of force to intimidate and neutralize opposition figures.

Examples of the arbitrary use of force in Ethiopia are numerous and have been recorded by international human rights monitors and governments. For instance, it has been noted that the Ethiopian government countenanced and has taken no disciplinary action against security forces that killed at least 31 Addis Ababa University students during the April 2001 demonstrations. This points directly to the complicity of the Meles regime in the violence of that year and the lack of accountability in the government. Nor is any action likely against the ruling party personnel that reportedly withheld fertilizer and food aid - in the SNNPRS region - for voters that voted for opposition candidates. The examples of government abuse of force are legion and we need not recount them all here.

Such actions, or inactions, by the EPRDF have created an atmosphere of fear and silence on the part of political parties that wish to challenge the government. Moreover, electors are unlikely to associate, assemble, or vote when they fear reprisals. Despite emerging from 17 years of Marxist dictatorship, the state's authoritarian actions have perpetuated a society and culture of fear in Ethiopia. Such a state may nominally be called a "democracy" (although many African commentators have called such states "pseudo-democracies") but it is neither a free state, nor in other words, a liberal democratic state.

Unfortunately, Ethiopia lacks the liberal pillars of democracy and must be ranked with ignominious regimes like Ghana's, Zimbabwe's, Belarus's, and Iran's. These regimes reside in the pantheon of illiberal democracies. They may have relatively free and fair elections from time to time, but they are democracies only in name and not in deed. Ethiopia fits perfectly in this political taxonomy - it is a repressive and ethnically based regime with only pretensions of liberty and freedom.

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