Opinion: Why Ethiopia needs a strong incumbent political party in the transition to democracy

On Sunday December 01 eight parties constituting the new Prosperity Party signed the document marking the unification of EPRDF

Girmachew Alemu, For Addis Standard

Between revolution and continuity

Addis Abeba, December 03/2019 – Ethiopia is going through a political transition to democracy that began under the incumbent Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four ethnic-based political groups that ruled the country since 1991.  Despite its authoritarian past, the EPRDF initially committed itself to transition to democracy that is open to all opposition political parties. After a few months into the transition, the ruling EPRDF fractured following serious political differences between leaders of the party who support democratic reforms and those who want to retain the status quo.

On November 22, 2019, the chairman of the EPRDF, PM Abiy Ahmed, announced the decision to merge three of the four members of the EPRDF coalition to establish a new national incumbent successor political party named Prosperity Party.  Other hitherto independent regional parties are also expected to join the Prosperity Party (incumbent successor party). This commentary reflects on why the birth of the new incumbent successor party is a step forward in the transition to democracy and highlights three major issues (ethnicity, dealing with the past, and personal rule) that are crucial for the strength and stability of the new party.

Party and party system institutionalization

Ethiopia’s leaders pledged, among other reforms, free and fair multiparty elections in May 2020. Yet, the country is home to highly fragmented, volatile and weak political parties and party system marked by lack of party cohesion, high regional fragmentation, weak financial resources, and clientelism.[1]  Over the years, the ruling EPRDF engendered the weak institutionalization of opposition political parties through direct repression and indirect pressure such as inducing internal rivalry, and monopoly over state institutions including the media.

The weak party institutionalization has in turn resulted in a weak party system institutionalization which negatively affected the ability of opposition political parties to forge strong alliances, connect and establish stable linkage with voters, shape and mediate mass political negotiations, and be strong contenders against the ruling party.[2] Also, the EPRDF’s failure to go through the transition to democracy in one piece and the political wrangling between its leaders has exacerbated the volatility and fragmentation of the party system and weakened the transition to democracy.

The formation of the new Prosperity Party committed to transition to democracy is an opportunity to reduce the volatility and fragmentation of the party system.  The crucial role of an incumbent successor party such as the Prosperity Party in democratic transition may sound counterintuitive especially because of its authoritarian past and continued dominance of the political space. Yet, those are the qualities that make an incumbent successor party instrumental in pushing for high party system institutionalization and competitive electoral democracy.[3]  

In the transition to democracy, the incumbent successor party will apply its capacity, resources, networks, and dominant status inherited from its authoritarian past to win democratic elections. The process will have the incumbent shaping and controlling the rules and institutions of democracy including party registration and competition, electoral and democratic institutions with what Riedl calls the ‘unintended consequences’ of pushing opposition political parties to have cohesion and stronger alliance even when the rules and institutions are favorable to the incumbent.[4]  

Also, a strong incumbent successor party in Ethiopia is highly likely to produce robust short-term and long-term policies, programs and plans. Such clarity will help opposition parties to forge a strong anti-incumbent cleavage and come up with solid policy and program alternative for voters and their constituencies.  The absence of agitation of voters and constituencies by opposition political parties for the May 2020 general elections left with only six months shows, among other things, the confusion over the incumbent strategy and the extreme volatility and fragmentation of the party system.

Recently, parties representing regional states of Somali, Afar, Harari, Benishagul Gumuz and Gambella have joined Prosperity Party, signaling the opening of the national political space to a large number of citizens who were effectively marginalized by the discriminatory political set up of the EPRDF that limited membership to ethnic groups represented in the coalition. Such move will enable the Prosperity Party to mobilize large number of voters and constituencies across the country. The broad base of the Party will contribute to the stability of the party system by bringing smaller regional parties to a common negotiation forum. Moreover, the policy will likely push opposition political parties to form strong alliances against the incumbent thereby reducing the fragmentation and volatility of the party system.

Ethnicity and Pluralism

 EPRDF has recognized the ethnic and religious diversity in the country. The accommodation of ethnic and religious pluralism is a constructive policy that should be maintained by the Prosperity Party. EPRDF has also directly and indirectly encouraged the formation of ethnic political parties, a policy that should be rejected by the Prosperity Party for many reasons.  To begin with, a party system dominated by ethnic parties like ours is not compatible with the idea of accommodation of pluralism and democracy. Ethnic parties are rigid because they ‘derive their support from an identifiable ethnic group and serve the interests of that group’.[5]  As such, ethnic parties exclude those who cannot identify with the ethnic group they claim to represent.  In a multi-ethnic country like Ethiopia, the proliferation of ethnic parties created ‘several one-party ethnic states’ generating an extremely fragmented and fragile party system.[6]  Also, ethnic parties offer little or no policy choice for voters that belong to the ethnic groups they claim to represent. Studies show that in a party system dominated by ethnic political parties, citizens ‘feel that they are trapped in ethnic-party zones and that they lack the freedom to form and choose parties other than the one or two parties who claim to represent their ethnic groups.’[7]  In effect ethnic communities become hostage to the whims of ethnic elites who obstruct political mobilization and alliances on grounds that are common to all communities in the country.

Another strong policy reason for the Prosperity Party to tone down ethnicity as a tool of mobilization is its extreme politicization that went on for the last several years. It has become common to hear ethnic political parties accusing each other of ‘anti-x-people’ policies and actions. Semantics aside, it is now clear that the EPRDF led politicization of ethnicity has eventually created numerous highly fragmented and volatile ethnic political parties that are bent on dragging communities that lived peacefully for generations into violence.

Granted, ethnicity will continue to be a strong tool of political mobilization in Ethiopia as in most agrarian societies.  Nonetheless, the Prosperity Party has an opportunity to set a new tone on the basis of an ideology of tolerance and mobilize voters and constituencies across a set of diverse issues and interests including class, gender, economic, social, and ethnic cleavages. The strategy will enable the party to be a ‘bridging’ and negotiation forum for diverse set of voters and constituencies including the youth, civic groups and ethnic groups. [8] In the long run, the policy will induce opposition parties to come up with equally robust and meaningful policy alternatives rather than focus and capitalize on ethnic differences among communities.

Dealing with the legacy of the past

The EPRDF party brand has collapsed. Paradoxically, the strength and weakness of the Prosperity Party is closely linked with the legacy of the EPRDF.  The Prosperity Party draws strength from its inheritance of, among others, the financial and human resources, mass networks, and political, economic, and social achievements of the EPRDF.  Conversely, the Party carries what Loxton calls ‘authoritarian baggage’ from the past such as human rights violations, high-level corruption, massive financial mismanagement and other undemocratic practices and policy failures of the EPRDF.[9]  Loxton identifies four strategies of dealing with ‘authoritarian baggage’ by new incumbent successor parties in the context of transition to democracy: contrition, obfuscation, scapegoating, and embracing the past.[10] 

Contrition involves a process of breaking with the past through acts such as the admission of wrong policies and actions of the past, opening up the political space, and renaming and restructuring the incumbent party. Obfuscation is denying the connection of the successor party with the failures of the past while scapegoating is blaming a few top leaders of the old authoritarian party for all failures and violations. Embracing the past is a strategy that accepts and celebrates all acts and policies of the authoritarian past.

The current government has taken steps that are meant to open up the political space in the transition to democracy. For instance, several political prisoners were released. Numerous opposition political parties are allowed to operate in the country. In his June 2018 speech to the parliament, the current Prime Minster and chairman of the EPRDF made a rare and historic admission of the massive human rights violations that were carried out under the EPRDF. Also, the process of establishing the Prosperity Party can be taken as part of a strategy of breaking with the past. Nonetheless, these actions on their own do not forestall authoritarian regression. They are rather first steps in a long and arduous road in the transition to democracy.

The Prosperity Party should adopt a forward-looking strategy that openly rejects the excesses of the past and, more importantly, guarantees non-repetition in the future. There are many challenging issues that swing between inheritance and authoritarian baggage for the Prosperity Party. For instance, while it is beneficial to inherit the EPRDF mass base of members and cadres, it requires a lot of work to orient and align them with democratic and rule based political processes and behavior. Similarly, setting accountable party administration and building processes such as transparency on party ownership of economic institutions, and the state-party relation are challenges of the new Party.

Personal Rule

Personal rule is an elitist governance system run by a strong man ruler and a handful powerful politicians. Personal rule can stand on its own or can run through a network of institutions including political parties loyal to the ruler.[11]  Personal rule weakens political parties by making them subservient to the whims of a few politicians. Political parties under personal rule are not only inefficient and corrupt but are also threats to the party system and the consolidation of democracy. Personal rule is one of the authoritarian legacies of the EPRDF that should be rejected by the Prosperity Party.  The Prosperity Party can curb personal rule by using mechanisms that limit the power of political leaders internally and externally. Internally, political leaders should be committed to the objectives and programs of the Party. 

In the words of Bizzarro et al. ‘constraints on leaders stem from the process of leadership selection, which in a strong party favors individuals with a demonstrated commitment to the party, usually those who have risen through the ranks.’[12]  Strong political parties select and socialize leaders on a basis of a succession plan that takes into account, among other factors, capacity, levels of responsibility, and generational time frames.  Also, the tenure of leaders in strong parties is limited. Political parties with strong leadership framework are instrumental in checking executive power even in the absence of constitutional limitations.[13]

Externally, the power of political leaders is limited by the objectives and programs of other competitive strong parties within the party system. At different junctions of the transition to democracy, leaders of the Prosperity Party are expected to negotiate with opposition political parties and their supporters to avoid polarization of voters and the wider society. Such negotiations would ideally end up in political compromise that should be observed by parties and their leaders. Moreover, externally, party leaders are also constrained by the commitments and promises they make to voters and their constituencies. Strong parties specify consequences for party leaders who fail to meet the commitments made to voters and constituencies.[14]

Editor’s Note: Girmachew Alemu is Associate Professor, School of Law, Addis Abeba University (AAU). He can be reached at ganeme@gmail.com



[1] See Asnake Kefale (2011), ‘The (un)making of opposition coalitions and the challenge of democratization in Ethiopia, 1991–2011’, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 5:4, 681-701.

[2] See Scott Mainwaring, Fernando Bizzarro, and Ana Petrova, ‘Party System Institutionalization, Decay, and Collapse’ in Scott Mainwaring (ed.), Party Systems in Latin America: Institutionalization, Decay, and Collapse (2018, Cambridge University Press) on party system institutionalization.   

[3] See Rachel Beatty Riedl, Authoritarian Origins of Democratic Party Systems in Africa, (Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.1-5.

[4] Ibid, p.1.

[5] Pippa Norris and Robert Mattes, ‘Does Ethnicity Determine Support for the Governing Party? The Structural and Attitudinal Basis of Partisan Identification in 12 African Nations’, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Faculty Research Working Papers Series, RWP03-009, February 2003, p.5.

[6] Robert A. Dowd, and Michael Driessen, ‘Ethnically Dominated Party Systems and the Quality of Democracy: Evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa’ Afrobarometer, Working Paper No. 92, 2008, p.15

[7] Ibid.

[8] Pippa Norris and Robert Mattes, ‘Does Ethnicity Determine Support for the Governing Party? The Structural and Attitudinal Basis of Partisan Identification in 12 African Nations’, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Faculty Research Working Papers Series, RWP03-009, February 2003, p.5.

[9] James Loxton, ‘Authoritarian Successor Parties Worldwide: A Framework for Analysis’, Kellogg Institute for International Studies, Working Paper # 411, June 2016, pp 16-17.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Jackson, Robert H. and Carl G. Rosberg, ‘Personal Rule: Theory and Practice in Africa’, 1984, 16(4) Comparative Politics, pp.423-424; Mehran Kamrava, Politics and Society in the Third World (Routledge, New York, 1993), p.18.

[12] Fernando Bizzarro et al, ‘Party Strength and Economic Growth’, World Politics, 1-46, 2018, p.6.

[13] Ibid, pp.6-7.

[14] See Gustavo A. Flores-Macías, ‘The Macroeconomic Consequences of PSI’, in Scott Mainwaring (Ed.), Party Systems in Latin America: Institutionalization, Decay, and Collapse (Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 408-425.

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