Featured Picture: Election officials count votes at the end of the voting exercise in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Abeba May 24, 2015. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri/file

Zemelak Ayitenew Ayele

Addis Abeba, August 02/2019 – On 31st of April 2019, Turkey held its local elections. The elections and the whole process leading to the election day were reported on major international news outlets. Recep Tayip Erdogan, Turkey’s President, crisscrossed the country to campaign for his Justice and Development Party (AKP). He attended large political rallies in different cities where he gave speeches to tens of thousands enthusiastic supporters. However, Erdogan’s party lost in Turkey’s major cities including Ankara, the political capital of country, and Izimir and, later, Istanbul.  This was reported as a major political defeat to the President and his party. Likewise, local elections were held in South Africa in 2016 which were reported on international media in a similar manner. The defeat of the African National Congress (ANC) in major South African cities, including Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan cities, is among the factors that catalyzed the unseating of Jacob Zuma as the president of the country.

The results of local elections in these two countries not only were important in their own rights but were also viewed as vital for gauging the political mood in each of the two countries. They were considered as critical indicators of the possible outcomes of national elections that would be held subsequently. Voters also used the local elections for putting political parties and politician on notice that they were displeased with the political, economic and social situations prevailing in the countries and that they were seriously considering to discontinue their support to the political parties governing at the national levels. This shows the significance of a democratic local government and local elections for the overall democratization of a country.

The common view of local government and local elections in Ethiopia is the complete opposite of what is described above. Local elections are held without any fanfare; they are preceded by absence of political debates or campaigns. The media hardly reports about them, both before and after election day. Moreover, voters, other than supporters of the ruling EPRDF and its affiliates, had little reason to come out in big numbers and vote since opposition parties often declare their intentions to boycott all local elections long before the elections dates. Furthermore, local elections are postponed without anyone raising eyebrows. The 2019 local elections, including the elections for the councils of Addis Abeba and Dire Dawa Chartered cities have now been postponed just like the ones in 2018.

What is worse is local government being not even on the agenda in the political negotiations and reforms taking place at the national level. Ethiopia is undergoing unprecedented political and institutional transformation since the coming to power of Abiy Ahmed on the 2nd of April 2018. Several pieces of legislation (or provisions in some pieces of legislation) that were deemed hindrance to democratization in this country have been – or are in the process of being – scrapped.  Political parties are in negotiation with the ruling party and among themselves on the different pieces of legislation that govern electoral democracy in the country, including the laws governing the formation and operation of the elections administration organ. Yet, the institutional reforms and the political negotiations are exclusively focused on the federal government and, to a very limited extent, the states, and that no one seems to be concerned about democratizing local government.

The irony in this is that neither the ruling nor opposition parties are pleased with local government and local authorities. In the past three decades, opposition parties have been lamenting that local authorities were the principal impediments against their electoral successes. According to them, not only did local authorities harass and intimidate their members and supporters but also prevented them from gaining access to the public. The ruling party has been dismissing such allegations as fictitious or as acts of a few overzealous local authorities and that the problem at the local level was not systemic. Yet the ruling party itself was not content with the performances of local officials. For instance, it blamed local authorities for the failure in the proper execution of federal and state policies with respect to land administration, expansion of health care and education among many others. It also accused local authorities of sending inflated reports regarding their performances in terms of expanding the provision of basic services.

In addition, in the past three to four years, local government and local authorities had been battered due to anti-government protests in Oromia and Amhara regional states. Add to that, it is an open secret that in many areas of the two regional states, organized armed groups have gone to the extent of dismantling local institutions and/or attacked (even killed) local authorities or forced them to flee. In fact, in some occasions activists promoting and guiding the protests deliberately targeted local government and local authorities. This was because as the nearest, in most cases the only, government institutions in most parts of the country, local governments and local authorities were, unsurprisingly, easy targets. The federal and state governments were too far for the fuming protesters to attack.

Moreover, in the last one year, the public witnessed government going awry firsthand at the local level. Based on several reports and public accounts, it is safe to conclude that the entrenched corruption and nepotism and human rights violations that have been extensively spreading in the past one year have principally involved local officials. It was thus only natural that the public expressed its anger and frustration by burning kebele and woreda offices and by attacking local officials. It is common knowledge now that, in many parts of Oromia and Amhara, finding functioning local government structure is a rarity.

Many people insist that Ethiopia is having an opportune time to do away with its authoritarian tradition and re-establish itself as a democratic state. Encouraging reforms are taking place to this effect despite the disheartening break down in security in different parts of the country. Yet, the reforms have been thus far limited to the national level, completely ignoring the local level. If the democratic reforms taking place are to be long lasting, they need to have deep roots at the local level lest they should easily be reached by political frosts. One cannot expect the reforms to succeed with such undemocratic and dysfunctional local government system in place. Hence, as René Lefort in this October 2018 OP-Ed has argued, holding democratic local elections could be used for facilitating the transition to democratic order. Both the ruling and opposition parties should put democratizing local government on the agenda. This should involve enhancing the political relevance and the democratic pedigree of local government. The most critical institutional mechanism for so doing is the entrenchment in the national constitution of local government as a democratic and politically relevant level of government which should be complemented with transferring of suitable competences and sufficient resources to the latter. AS

Editor’s note: Zemelak Ayitenew Ayele is Associate Professor and Director: Center for Federalism and Governance Studies, Addis Abeba University; Extra-ordinary Associate Professor at the Dullah Omar Institute (DOI), University of the Western Cape (UWC) South Africa. 
He can be reached at: zemelak.ayitenew@aau.edu.et

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