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Medrek’s proposal


Exactly two months to the upcoming general elections, the political environment in the Ethiopia appears to be gathering momentum.

This momentum could easily be felt especially after the dawn of the campaign period as announced by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). Since then, parties have been in the move to make their party programs and alternative policies know to the voter public, and the latest party to do that is Medrek, writes Asrat Seyoum.

The first of the nine round of TV-debates scheduled to take place before the election was aired last week. And one by one, parties are coming up with their election manifestos to guide their political campaign through to the polling day. Latest in this group is Forum for Democratic Dialogue (Medrek). Formed in 2008 by the coalition of four parties, United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF), the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM), Somali Democratic Alliance Forces (SDAF) and Union of Tigrians for Democracy and Sovereignty a.k.a. Arena, and two influential politicians, Siye Abreha and Negasso Gidada, formerly members of the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the party was quick to rise to the level of being a major contender in the 2010 general elections in Ethiopia.

Reports at the time placed Medrek second behind the EPRDF garnering an estimated 30 percent of the popular vote across nation, although it did not help the party to take more than one seat in parliament. Girma Seifu, the lone parliamentarian representing the party and of the whole opposition camp during the last five years, was actually able to run under Medrek’s ticket after his mother party, Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), took a controversial decision to join the then coalition Medrek. The decision of UDJ taken by the then chairman of the party Gizachew Shiferaw (Eng.) and his allies led to a dramatic turn of events in the party. A split within UDJ where Gizachew and another group led by veteran politician, Mesfin Woldemariam (Prof.), was one that is widely remembered by those following political developments in the country. This controversy, which has its roots from the decision to join Medrek, was quite extreme in sense that the two groups were engaged in a raw fist fight in a bid to take control of the party and its headquarters.

The decision to take UDJ under Medrek’s wings proved to be problematic from the very beginning. The issue was sheer ideological asymmetry between the newcomer and the parties who founded the coalition. Widely perceived as a coalition of political units which are formed along ethnic lines, Medrek, indeed saw its efforts to take UDJ on-board, a party that is forged along nationalist (unity) perspectives, go futile. Ultimately, the entire ordeal climaxed with the two parties breaking up finally, ironically following a statement made by Gizachew, the chairman who decided to join the coalition in the first place, on the future of political struggle on a coalition basis. The chairman, who later defended saying that he was speaking on a personal capacity not as a party leader, commented that coalition politics will not bear fruit in Ethiopia at the time. Leaders of Medrek took offense in this statement and demanded that the chairman and his party offer a formal apology regarding the statement. Eventually, the whole thing fell apart and UDJ was forced to relinquish its membership of Medrek, which by then was advancing to become a front.

Unsurprisingly, this is one of the outstanding matters in the recently released election manifesto. To beginning with, the document was careful not make any reference to a particular ideology that is espoused by all the parties in the front. According to Tilahun Endeshaw, public relations head of Medrek, the front has not yet arrived at a unified ideology like the ruling party. He told The Reporter that neither social democracy, which is adopted by Beyene’s Ethiopian Social Democrats-Southern Ethiopian People Democratic Union, nor the developmental state thinking of the ruling are ideological stances of the front at this time. “When we were able to agree on a particular ideology we will be on the way to unification and becoming one party,” Tilahun explained. Consequently, Medrek does not have a clearly defined social base to which it declares allegiance to and relay for votes.

In essence, many classify Medrek to be closer to what the ruling party held as an ideology stance than any other opposition parties in the country. Although the party did not admit that, it claims in its manifesto that the EPRDF has not yet succeeded in addressing the question of nations and nationalities in Ethiopia. This, say Medrek, is clearly exhibited in the failure of the federalism system itself. Merera Gudina (PhD), a lecturer at Addis Ababa University (AAU) and head of external affairs for Medrek, goes even further in claiming that the ruling party has folded on its promise to insure the right of nations and nationalities in the country. The party mainly argues that the lopsided relationship between the regional states and the central government, in favor of the later, is manifestation of the failure of the incumbent (EPRDF) regarding the question of nations and nationalities. Nevertheless, for constitutional experts like Abera Degeffa, the question of nations and nationalities is not synonymous with the federalism system. Hence, alluding to the fact that evaluation of the federalism system alone cannot provide an adequate ground to say whether the question of nations and nationalities has been addressed in the certain country.

As far as the question of nations and nationalities is concerned, the debate goes a little bit further than the success and failure of the ruling party during the last 24 years. To begin with, one can argue that whether the question of nations and nationalities has been addressed in certain country is a big question in itself. According to Abera and few other pundits, this question is perceived to be as good as answered the moment it is enshrined in the constitution of the country. He, however, says that he has concerns even as to what has been written in the constitution especially regarding resource distribution. Merera as well is of the view that EPRDF has the normative framework on the ground only to lack in the execution of the laws.

More widely, the issue of self-determination to nations and nationalities is also covered in the manifesto document in question. Of course, the document says that Medrek strictly believes in the rights of nations and nationalities to self-determination but with an interesting twist: less of secession. Tilahun goes as far as stating that the FDRE Constitution is one of the few nations that has managed to incorporate secession to rights of self-determination. He argues that this was not necessary to incorporate in the first place and proposes changes should it ascend to power after this election. For the constitutional expert, this is an ongoing international debate: whether the right to self-determination is full without secession. And that both sides puts forward a strong argument in this regard.

In connection to that, the manifesto also puts forward a unique proposal that is alternative working language in Ethiopia besides Amharic. The party argues that the question of an alternative working language is a matter of necessity for the kind of federalist state that Ethiopia is trying to become. For Abera, Oromiffa automatically can qualify to be another working language in Ethiopia not to mention the viability of Somali, Tigrigna and Sidama languages. Merera, on his part, insists that should his party take power, one of the changes that it seeks to implement is introducing a handful of working languages in country. “I know this proposal carries a heavy financial burden for a country like Ethiopia,” Merera says, however, he is of the view that nothing is more than the political cost that befalls the nations if this is not implemented. Abera as well seems to share the concern of Medrek’s leadership in the area of working language.

Nevertheless, the party presented a manifesto document which is customarily divided in to political, economy and social issues and Medrek’s general take of the current conditions in Ethiopia. In terms of the form, the document was organized in a way that is clear and readable. Right at the beginning of the document, the manifesto start-off with one of the strongest claims that it could ever make about Ethiopian politics: the claim that the political space in Ethiopia has been completely closed. Usually, many in the opposition camp blamed the ruling party for narrowing down the political space. Medrek rather feels that there is no space anymore for political parties and voices of decency to be heard in Ethiopia. Tilahun explains that over the years, narrowing down political space in Ethiopia has actually worsened and to a point of complete closure. “We are here participating in election not because there is suitable condition for election but that we don’t have any other choice,’ Tilahun says. Medrek’s only option for political struggle is a peaceful one, he continued to explain. This in part lends his argument to criticism. According to pundits, the very fact that parties like Medrek are operating in Ethiopia is a counter argument to complete closure of the political space.

Another major issue that the party covered in the manifesto was the need for negotiations with the ruling party to which the later did not agree. According to Medrek, the ruling party needs to sit down to negotiate on issues of election governed, usage of the media and rule of law. According Tilahun these are indeed what the legal framework of the nation protects and guarantees as a right. However, the ruling party practically curtails these rights, he argued. “That is why we are demanding negotiations on these matters,” he told The Reporter.

The manifesto really fall short of making any prudent proposal when it comes to the economic part of the country. To start with, the document looked quite relaxed to make what seems to be an outrageous claim that Ethiopia is currently run under a command economy system. From an economic stand point, this claim was not corroborated by any factual argument or testimony. Still worse is how the manifesto has managed to concentrate on the distractive role of party-affiliated companies on the economy. Even the claim that the so called party-affiliated (that of the ruling party’s) companies are playing distortionary role was not supported with any research or fact finding of any kind which makes it a claim at best. Furthermore, the document’s insinuation of the impact that these rogue companies seems to have on the Ethiopian economy looks to be a crude overestimation.

However, the manifesto do make an appropriate mention of the problem of inflation, poverty, mass migration and unemployment. Here as well, the document would divulge to proposing any alternate policy instruments to correct any of the above; better yet the document would not show how these problem have come to be in the Ethiopian economy in the first place.

On other side, even when the document do make prudent economic analysis and proposes a solution, it fails to show the voting public as how different the policy proposed by Medrek is from the rest of the opposition camp and of course from the incumbent. Over in the entire text of the manifesto, Medrek did not choose to employee any quantitative analysis of the existing issues or use quantitative methods to propose policies. The economic text just lacks numbers and research outcomes. At times, it makes claims like downplaying two-digit economic growth without reference to a particular study or institution to corroborate the claims. Merera is confident that even the international organizations who have come up with reports supporting double-digit growth in Ethiopia have been tricked by government institutions from whom they are collecting the data hence drawing flawed conclusions.

Note: This article was published in The Reporter, on March 21, 2015. It can be found at