On the Democratization Process

July 1, 2011

By Messay Kebede

This is not a response to the numerous reactions generated by my previous article titled “Meles’s Political Dilemma and the Developmental State: Dead-Ends and Exit” Some of the reactions raised serious and legitimate questions; others emanated from misunderstandings of the actual contents of the article; still others drifted more toward acrimony and malicious insinuations than a civilized exchange of ideas. While I thank all those who came up with serious questions and assure them that I take their challenges as expressions of the real framework of the Ethiopian political debate, I say “grow up” to those who chose acrimony and insinuations, including those who gushed their bravados about popular revolution and armed struggle from their comfortable life in Europe and America.

This paper is rather intended to stress some points that we should keep in mind when we discuss about democracy and the role of elites. Among the serious challengers of my proposal, Abiye Teklemariam Megenta and Eskinder Nega point out that elite driven political change cannot produce democratic outcomes without the active participation of the people. I wholeheartedly agree with them, but insist that the issue of how democracy functions is different from how democracy comes into being in the first place. The shift from functional to genetic perspective brings out the decisive role of elites, more exactly, the potential for democratic change when rival elites give up the path of violent confrontation. Democracy presupposes the stage of civilized behavior through the surrender of violence as a means to defend or promote one’s interest. Once violence is out of the picture, what else remains but the avenue of compromise and agreement to resolve conflicts over power and material interests?

The whole issue it to know what compels elites to seek compromise and agreement rather than domination and exclusion. Studies of democratic changes show that when prolonged struggles over power and interests among various elite groups reach a stalemate or when a common threat endangers their existence, such as invasion by a foreign country or civil disorder and war, competing elites develop a disposition toward compromise. For instance, one incentive leading elites to devise an agreement is the fear of revolutions, which often tend to empower unorthodox and extremist elites (radical intellectuals, religious fundamentalists, secessionist leaders, etc.). Accordingly, it is idealistic to generate democratic disposition from the enlightening effect of progressist ideas or convictions; ideological conviction must be backed by interests for democratic changes to actually occur in practice. In other words, the conditions for democracy appear when rival elites commit to a peaceful resolution of their conflicts, which resolution is itself the outcome of a calculation of the best way to preserve their long-term interests.

I know that the common meaning attached to democracy is that it is the rule of the people. However, to say so does not mean that the people actually rule. Instead, it means that the people have the power to decide who rule them and that the latter are accountable to them. The control of state power is the concern of political elites, not of ordinary people. Moreover, democracy presupposes not the absence of conflicts, but their intensification, which applies more to elite competitions than to the communalism of the people. As rightly conceptualized by Karl Marx, the day the people control power is the day state power and politics come to an end.

Be it noted that there is an organic connection between the decision of elites to settle their disputes peacefully and the recognition of popular sovereignty. As soon as elites give up the use of force, there emerges the need for a sovereign arbitrator of conflicts, and this is typically realized through a free and fair competition for the vote of the people. Obviously, competition cannot be free and fair if it does not include the respect of basic rights, such as freedom of organization and expression and the fundamental rights of the individual. There is no arbitration of conflicts by the people, either, if the people are not invested with the necessary authority.
The decisive role of elites does not mean that the people passively await for elites to grant them their basic rights. On the contrary, people fight for those rights in conjunction with elites competing to assert their interests. As shown by Theda Skocpol’s statement according to which “revolutions are not made; they come,” it is a mistake to forget the autonomy of popular uprisings from elite politics. What connects popular movements with the latter is not that elites cause revolutions, but that they need the support of the people in their struggle for the control of power and compete for it, often in demagogic terms.

Those elite groups that best articulate their interests with the interest of the masses have a better chance to rise to power through election. Nonetheless, the inevitable divergence between elite interests and the masses offers the opportunity for the rival elite group to conquer power in its turn. This democratic process runs into danger when elite groups appear that claim to represent the masses. Instead of being mere allies, such elites identify with the masses and become their saviors, the typical form of which is found in the Leninist notion of “professional revolutionaries.”
The gist of my previous article is the assertion of a political stalemate in Ethiopia. The 2010 election has resolutely demonstrated that Meles and his followers have moved far away from the idea of free and fair competition for state power and that they are determined to stay in power by all means. This retraction incapacitates the nonviolent opposition and puts an end to the prospect of change occurring by means of free election. The deadlock is thus tangible: neither can Meles succeed in marginalizing the opposition through rapid economic development, as presumed in his defense of the developmental state, nor can the opposition overthrow him through electoral victory.

There is, of course, no impasse for those who opted for armed confrontation as the only means to topple the present regime. In my view, their position is the most consistent response to the drift of the present regime toward repression and one-party system and is in line with the goal of overthrowing the ruling elite. My problem is not that I discard the possibility of its success, given enough time, but that armed struggle leaves untouched the problem of democratization. Far from resolving the problem of democratization, the seizure of power by an armed movement creates domineering temptations, as strongly evinced by the history of the TPLF and EPLF. What remains true, however, is that the existence of such a movement can pressure the ruling elite to negotiate so that the path of democratization would still be found in the idea of coalition. Thus, there is no escaping negotiation and coalition when one wants genuine democratization.

On the other hand, the impasse of Ethiopia’s nonviolent opposition can only lead to one result: popular uprising or revolution, which, in addition to being unpredictable, will occur in a society polarized by ethnic tensions. In view of this stalemate and its dangerous implications for the country, including for the elites competing for power, I thought that an appeal to common sense and the long-term interests of all involved is timely and relevant. Hence the idea of coalition that I framed in such a way that it provides incentives for rival elites to work out a compromise. Those who characterized my idea as naïve simply forget that it is less naïve than those who believe that the TPLF can rule Ethiopia for an indefinite time or those who except democratic outcomes from a popular uprising.

For these incorrigible groups of people, I remind George Santayana’s famous warning: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Emperor Haile Selassie and the landed class lost everything because they refused compromise, thinking that they were invincible. This same belief presently animates Meles and his cronies. On the opposite side, those who pushed for revolution reaped the Derg and a host of tragic setbacks, including a prolonged civil war, economic decline, the ethnicization of conflicts, the loss of Eritrea, and the victory of the TPLF with its ethnic federalism.

What I find questionable is the assumption that genuine democratic forces are already ready not only to lead the popular uprising, but also to institute a genuine democratic government. Nothing is more naïve than this assertion: because people talk about democracy and democratic rights, it does not mean that they are willing to implement them. More often than not, elites use democratic slogans to rally popular support while their real intention is to establish their own exclusive power. All political actors in Ethiopia know this: simply, those who risk losing everything are understandably more suspicious than those who aspire for power. Moreover, democracy cannot happen overnight: it requires a protected process of institution-building, culture change, popular empowerment, and confidence building among political elites. As shown by the history of advanced democratic countries, democracy is made of incremental advances, often interrupted by setbacks.

I may disappoint many people when I say that in today’s Ethiopia I do not see the gathering of democratic forces, but that of resentment, suspicion, and hostility. The idea of a grand coalition is just an attempt to channel these negative forces into a protracted process of mutual accommodation and thrust (in lieu of distrust and dethronement of one group by another). I may disappoint even more when I state that I refuse to posit democracy in terms of either/or, that is, in terms cornering Ethiopians to say “democracy now or nothing else.” With due respect to my critics, as a long and evolutionary process, democracy grows out of authoritarianism. When one thinks in terms of process versus leap into the unknown, change is never either this or that; rather, it is this and that, to wit, a transition.

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