Proportional Representation Electoral System: The Pathway to Democratizing the Ethiopian Constitution and Mitigating Ethnic Conflict
Desta, Asayehgn, Professor, Dominican University of California 11-03-17
Given the widespread and outrageous repression prevalent in Ethiopia during the Derg’s era, Ethiopians had no other choice but to welcome the guerilla fighters that have been fighting to overthrow the dictatorial military government for more than fifteen years. After the military government was dismantled, with little or no consultation of the Ethiopian masses, the emerging Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) instituted an ethnic federation to form the current Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
After the federal constitution was ratified in 1994, the EPRDF restructured the government into nine ethnic-based regional states (killils) and two federally administered city-states. Despite opposition from concerned groups, the Ethiopian constitution incorporated Article 39 to grant rights to the Ethiopian people, nations, and nationalities to demand self-determination up to and including secession, provided each region could fulfill the arduous referendum conditions stated in the Ethiopian constitution.
As it stands now, the 1994 Ethiopian Federal Constitution can be applauded for initiating the formation, for its commitment to raising the political consciousness, and for galvanizing ethnic self-awareness of the Ethiopian masses (Africa Report, 2009). Because of the formation of ethnic federalism, Ethiopia was expected to be politically stable to and entertain the decentralization of power.
The formation of ethnic federalism is slippery. As a result, Article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution might have become a motivating incentive for a number of disgruntled political actors to instigate ethnic violence, thereby increasing ethnic cleavages among the Ethiopian people (Aalen and Leiden, 2011).
Ruling the country based upon ethnicity has left many Ethiopians of mixed heritage restless and in limbo. For instance, when applying for identity cards, people of mixed ethnic background don’t know whether to identify with their mother’s or father’s ethnicity. For example, the Oromos and Amharas—the majority in the Harari Region—deeply resent being ruled and victimized by the minority Harari group.
After lifting the country’s out of the ten months of state emergency, either being financed and launched by rent-seekers or some hateful Ethiopian diasporas or armed by outside forces, Ethiopia has faced many border skirmishes. Due to conflicts among the ethnically secluded regions of Ethiopia (i.e., Oromo vs Ethiopia Somali, Afar vs Tigrai), Ethiopians have witnessed many killings of innocent civilians. Faced with this wave of ethnic and anti-government protests, many innocent people have been displaced. Though the World Bank Group has granted “…a global Star Reformer Award to the Government of Ethiopia for its effective foreign direct investment (FDI) related reforms” (Ethiopian Investment Commission, 10, 25, 17), some foreign investors are cogitating fleeing the country.
Given the various ethnic upheavals and the anti-government demonstrations, some genuine Ethiopians worry about Ethiopia’s stability.If the present condition is not properly checked, the country may cease to function as it has for the last decade enjoying a strong economic growth with moderate performance in infrastructure. Similarly, the country’s leaders worry that the same divisions that ripped the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia into pieces may transpire in Ethiopia because Article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution grants each region the right to undergo the secession process.
Realizing increased antipathy towards the existing government, the current government seems willing to consider constructive suggestions to bring about tranquility and democratic transformation. Given this stand, an improvement in the electoral process would likely help revise and amend the constitution and speed up the democratic process, thereby contributing to peaceful change in Ethiopia. In other words, “instead of becoming dependent on the existing system that has created a mono-party system, Ethiopia must entertain creating multi-party system that are given equal level field to amend the text of the existing Ethiopian constitution” (Desta, 2017).
The First Past the Post (FPTP) Electoral System
As discussed in my book, Re-thinking Ethiopia’s Ethnic Federalism (2017), currently, Ethiopia currently calculates the number of parliamentary seats awarded to parties or individuals after election based on the First Past the Post (FPTP) or “winner-take all” electoral system. According to the First Past the Post electoral system, a candidate who gets the most votes in an election is regarded as the winner and stands duly elected as a member of parliament (MP). In addition to its easy implementation, the FPTP system produces stability. It avoids fragmentation of legislatures because it can produce a decisive majority with little or no coalition government needed in any deliberation process. For example, despite the EPRDF’s narrow base across constituencies, the EPRDF has enjoyed a sweeping majority of votes over the years; indeed, it claims to have won 100 percent of the votes in Ethiopia’s May 24, 2015 parliamentary elections.
Though very simple and it needs to be ascertained that the FPTP election system in Ethiopia has been using a sort of a back-door to include twenty-five seats for pro-EPRDF minorities to increase the EPRDF’s number of seats in the House of Representatives. However, this hand- picked system of introducing of minorities to the Ethiopian parliament has raised concerns by opposition parties who see it as window dressing to equalize the functioning of Ethiopia’s electoral process.
In stark contrast to the FPTP or Plurality, Relative Majority Systems which elect any candidate who gets a mere majority to the parliament—while disregarding all other candidates, irrespective of the size of their polls, as losers—this paper argues that if Ethiopia wants a pathway to participatory democracy, it must follow the Proportional Representation (PR) electoral process.
Proportional Representation (PR)
The Proportional Representation (PR) reduces the disparity between a party’s share in the parliamentary seats. In addition, Proportional Representation facilitates higher levels of voter turnout and encourages better representation of minorities (Downs (1957), Dow (2011), Molomo (2000), and IDEA (2005). Thus, if applied in Ethiopia, the party list form of Proportional Representation (as opposed to individual candidates) could facilitate harmony because it assumes all constituencies must be represented in parliament. Though it might result in temporary instability, it nonetheless promotes power-sharing provisions.
Ethiopians assort approximately 700 districts (600 rural and 100 urban) to fulfill the 547 seats in parliament. For example, in a 5-district voting constituency, if Party A wins 45 percent of the vote, Party B wins 40 percent, the Independent Party wines 10 percent of the votes, and other contenders or parties win only 6 percent of the vote; Party A and Party B could be assigned to 2 seats each. The Independent party could win 1 seat in the legislative because it has passed the 10 percent minimum level of support a party needs to gain representation in parliament (Desta, 2017). The remaining parties or individuals who attained less than 10 percent of the votes would probably not be elected to the House of People’s Representatives. Though other countries require a smaller share of the primary vote for a candidate or political party to gain representation in a legislature from 3% (in Italy, Greece, Spain, South Korea) to 3.25% in Israel, to 5% in Germany, and 10% in Turkey etc., (Wikipedia, 2017), tentatively, this study suggests a 10% threshold for Ethiopia.
Given the massive unrest in Ethiopia and the consensus among Ethiopian minorities that the House of People’s Representatives doesn’t represent them, Ethiopia could fundamentally and peacefully transform its political environment by replacing the outdated FPTP electoral with the proportional representation (PR) system. If used properly, the parliamentarians in the House of People’s Representatives elected through the PR electoral system could reasonably depict an accurate portrait of the peoples, nations and nationalities of Ethiopia, and thereby reflect their own views. Therefore, the legislatures might reposition themselves to democratically reexamine and amend flaws in the existing constitution and take the necessary steps to restructure the perceived failures in Ethiopia’s existing structure.
Provided the above steps are pursued carefully, Ethiopia’s transformation to democracy can become a reality. If properly managed, the proportional representation election system would undoubtedly allow multiple ballot choices to all Ethiopian citizens. Under this broad electoral spectrum, no eligible Ethiopian voter could be left out (Desta, 2017). In addition, proportional representation electoral process could mitigate Ethiopia’s rampant ethnic tensions. Thus, if Ethiopia can effectively and inclusively implement the PR electoral process, elections based on proportional representation could address and modify the Ethiopian constitution. If the existing constitution is revised and amended, it could undoubtedly serve as a pathway to democratization of the Ethiopian constitution and help Ethiopia mitigate ethnic conflicts and eventually attain its democratic ventures.
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Africa Report (4 September 2009). “ Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and Its .Discontents.” No. 153.
Dow, K (April 2011). “Party-System Extremism in Majoritarian and Proportional Electoral Systems,” British Journal of Political Science. 41, 2, 341-361.
Downs D. (1957), An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper, 117-127.
Ethiopian Investment Commission. “Ethiopia receives Global Star Reformer Award from the World Bank Group.” Available at http://www.ebc.et/web/ennews/-/ethiopia-receives -global-star-reformer-award-from-the-world-bank-group, accessed 10/25/17.
IDEA (2005).International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, IDEA Handbook of Electoral System Design. Sweden: Stockholm.
Molomo, M. (2000). “In Search of an Alternative Electoral System for Botswana.” The Journal of African Studies. Vol. 14, No. 1, 109-121.
Wikipedia, “ Legal election threshold in various countries.” Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki.Election _threshold, accessed 10/28/2017.