Ethiopian Election Debates and Missed Opportunities

Ethiopian Election 2010 Debate
Ethiopian Election 2010 Debate

The election battle is materialising and moving into top gear; although whether the level of enthusiasm has moved voters to determine who to vote for in the upcoming elections is yet to be seen.  Currently, the televised debates among the contesting parties, broadcast after they are recorded inside the studio of the national TV, have begun to goad voters’ interest, albeit limitedly.

There have been seven debates to date, including the latest conducted on April 16, 2010, on the parties’ noteworthy foreign policy issues. In previous weeks, the competing parties waged war over their policies and ideologically battled over the merit of their policies on education, health, good governance, federalism, rule of law, and other issues.

Some of these issues fall in the category of social services and such issues are to the advantage of any incumbent party as much as they are drawbacks to any opposition party. However, the debates on foreign policy issues did not reflect advantages or disadvantages in this manner.

If there is any strength the Revolutionary Democrats have displayed in both policy and performance, it is in the provision of social services. By any parameter, they have notable accomplishments over the years, particularly when compared to where they started from.

Indeed, they have never been good at selling these achievements to the voting public. Their efforts entail endless narrations of dry, boring, and exhaustive piles of statistics, comparing and contrasting what they have accomplished with what their predecessors have not. It has been argued before that it is difficult to make a clear distinction between their campaign footage and what the national TV broadcasts as documentary programmes of the nation’s development.

Nonetheless, as deemed by some, there have been loopholes in the foreign policy issues of the Revolutionary Democrats, and hence “encouraging achievements” have not been embraced by the voters.

There is a widely agreed view that the Revolutionary Democrats have had a shoddy record when it comes to foreign policy issues.

During the 18 years that the Revolutionary Democrats have been in power, the war with Eritrea, the country’s landlocked predicament, and the war in Somalia are the foreign policy issues usually mentioned by the public and the opposition to be major failures. And, as expected, the opposition bloc characteristically took on the Revolutionary Democrats, using these issues in their arsenal as ammunition during the debate.

For what it is worth, the issues raised are not small ones. Rather, they are issues that were imperfectly treated by the Revolutionary Democrats.

For an incumbent endowed with such reasonably functioning party machinery as the Revolutionary Democrats seem to have, successful implementation of their foreign policy programmes seem to be unattainable.

In relation to this, the failure to address the notion of “progressive” thinking amongst the political class in the various parties and its insensitivity to the particular problems of other countries, especially when looking at foreign policy issues, is notorious.

And not surprisingly, that is where those debating on behalf of the half dozen opposition parties failed to succeed.

Unlike previous debates on issues such as federalism and human rights, rule of law and good governance, those who stood to defend the position of the incumbent seem to have prevailed, enjoying both a policy upper hand and overall victory in the debate.

The Revolutionary Democrats put forward their resilient and robust representatives to make their case during the debate on foreign policy issues.

The unpredictable and determined Redwan Hussien and the veteran and confident Arkebe Okubay were the ones deployed by the Revolutionary Democrats.

In them, the Revolutionary Democrats have brought forward their best, far from the all too common invariables who often give the impression to voters that they are on scripts.

It is perhaps little surprising to see a politician trained as an educator and one who has been serving as an education bureau head to assertively and commandingly debate on a major issue on foreign policy. And, did he succeed? Maybe, but the credit goes to the opposition debaters.

One way or the other, and as it has been seen repeatedly in previous debates, it takes a courageous politician like Tedros Adhanom to admit wrongs and accept shortfalls, while at the same time emphasising accomplishments. Electorates usually like such debaters, and that seems to be why many voters liked Tedros.

Many of the debaters from the various opposition parties appeared to have made less effort in attempting to present their policy alternatives to that of the incumbent in black and white.

For instance, as attempted by the Forum for Justice and Democratic Dialogue’s (FJDD’s) Siye Abreha, who was trying to corner the Revolutionary Democrats by saying that he was in part responsible for the decision that made the country a landlocked one, said that he regretted doing so. It was a good attempt, and had he pursued this itinerary a little more by elaborating on how it occurred and how it could be reversed, he could have gained the upper hand.

Not in a rhetorical way, though, it should have been done in an amplified way that was detailed to the last point, but then there is the time factor and the Revolutionary Democrats have a little more time for politicking on the issues.

Foreign policy issues are mainly oriented towards describing what actually goes on in foreign policymaking; the structure of the foreign policy establishment; and how policy develops in response to changing patterns in global politics, economics, and power relationships, as well as the gradual or sudden emergence of new tensions and the role of intelligence gathering and assessment.

Analysts and academics have been suggesting that the “theoretical” issues have long been neglected when it comes to foreign policy, and that is why the incumbent could not sing their own praises on international relations and foreign policy.

Even if it could be argued that the outcome of the Copenhagen Conference was not a success, opposition members should bear in mind that either the integrity or oratory skills of the PM made him the best choice in representing not only the country but the whole continent at the Copenhagen Conference.