Why Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party could be bad news for Ethiopia

The new pan-Ethiopian party created to replace the EPRDF coalition risks bringing the country to the edge of an abyss.

Abiy Ahmed Reuters
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks during a session with the members of the Parliament in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, October 22, 2019. [Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]

Last month, three of the four ethnic-based parties that make up Ethiopia‘s ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), voted to merge into a single national party, called Prosperity Party (PP).

This comes just months before a general election seen as a litmus test for the success of the country’s ongoing democratic transition.

The EPRDF, which has its roots in a former Marxist-Leninist rebel movement, has been the vanguard political force in Ethiopia since coming to power in 1991.

It was made out of four unequal parties that each purportedly represent a dominant ethnic group in the country: The Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM). In reality, the latter three were satellite parties created by the TPLF to bolster its legitimacy as a revolutionary vanguard party that represents the interests of the major ethnic groups in the country.

Despite its claims to be an effective revolutionary instrument to advance the interests of marginalised ethnic groups, EPRDF has always been a hodgepodge of ethnic groups that served the interests of its most dominant member, the TPLF, and ruled Ethiopia with an iron-fist for nearly three decades. 

Since becoming the leader of the EPRDF and the prime minister of Ethiopia in April 2018, Abiy Ahmed tried to rebrand the party to redeem its tarnished reputation.

But it soon became clear that superficial reforms could not resolve EPRDF’s crisis of legitimacy and address its crippling dysfunction. So, after a series of high-profile but essentially cosmetic attempts to rebuild the party’s fractured image, Abiy went for the nuclear option: dissolving the four constituent units of the coalition and forming a single pan-Ethiopian national party.

Three of the four ethnic parties within the coalition, OPDO, ANDM, and SEPDM, voted overwhelmingly to join the party, while the TPLF, which created these parties and the EPRDF coalition, rejected the idea as “illegal and reactionary”.

With the creation of the PP, the three former ethnic parties of the EPRDF and other ethnic-based parties that voted to join it, such as the Ethiopian Somali People’s Democratic Party (ESPDP), will cease to exist as distinct political entities, and their memberships will merge.

Most importantly, the PP is not going to be the direct representative of any particular ethnic group. Instead, it will try to be an all-encompassing national party that speaks for the entire Ethiopian people.

At first glance, the demise of the EPRDF and the creation of the PP as a pan-Ethiopian party seems like a positive step towards uniting a long-divided country. But on closer inspection, it becomes clear that the architects of the move failed to take into account a range of constitutional, ideological and representational issues that could bring the political legitimacy and representative capacity of the newly formed party into question.  

One of the reasons why Ethiopia adopted a multinational federal order in 1994 was because there were politically salient ethnic cleavages that have received eloquent theoretical and political endorsements, particularly since the 1960s. Ethnic identity and ethnic nationalism came to be the predominant mode of political mobilisation and organising not just because EPRDF chose such an arrangement but rather because of the asymmetric relationship of inequality and domination between ethnic groups in the country. The formation of the PP comes at a time when these ethnic cleavages are pronounced and the central demands of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups for political autonomy and cultural justice remain unresolved. 

Fatal complacency

In most cases, the merger of political parties or movements that have long been allies does not cause a significant change in the political environment they exist in. The EPRDF, however, is not an ordinary political party.

A vassal configuration assembled by the TPLF towards the end of the 1980s, EPRDF was primarily designed to broaden TPLF’s appeal beyond the Tigray region and to undercut other more autonomous political parties.

Over the past three decades, the party pitted one group against another to stay in power. Such authoritarian politics eliminated the conditions for collective politics and foreclosed the emergence of a viable and credible political organisation that could offer a serious alternative.

In doing so, the party made sure that it remains the only political formation with the capacity to resolve the country’s many deep-rooted problems. 

That is why Abiy’s decision divided opinion among ordinary Ethiopians and key players in Ethiopia’s future alike.  

For some, the birth of the pan-Ethiopian Prosperity Party from the ashes of the EPRDF is a historic step towards national unity and social cohesion.

Among political forces that support the Prosperity Party are “Ethiopian nationalists”, a fast diminishing political bloc that views the EPRDF and the ethno-national federal order, which grants bigger ethnic groups self-governance rights within their respective states, as the source of Ethiopia’s troubles. Their support for the PP is driven less by a careful assessment of Ethiopia’s social cleavages and political fault lines and more by their fixation on a homogenizing conception of “unity” that is responsible for the crisis of legitimacy that haunted the Ethiopian state for over a century.

For others, the fusion of the distinct entities that represented the various ethnic groups marks a return to Ethiopia’s centralising and homogenising past. People who define themselves as “Federalists” or “Confederalists” hold this view, as well as individuals who have a strong attachment to their ethnic identity. They believe that ethnic communities within Ethiopia are entitled to be represented in the federation by parties that bear their names and put their interests above all else. 

Indeed, many Ethiopians living outside the capital, Addis Ababa, have a strong attachment to their ethnic communities and believe that ethnic groups should be entitled to determine their political, economic and cultural status without any external interference, including the right to be judged and be educated in their own language. They want to belong to the larger Ethiopian polity while also preserving their unique identity and character. For them, the PP threatens to undermine the achievements of the last three decades in terms of cultural and political autonomy and lays the structural foundation for a unitary state that will rob them off their dignity and autonomy.

There are also Ethiopians who oppose the merger because they believe the time is not right. They point to the fact that ethnic nationalism is still the dominant mode of political mobilisation in Ethiopia and argue that merging the party before addressing the central political demands of historically marginalised ethnic groups and before completing the democratic transition risks bringing the country to the edge of an abyss. 

Risks to the Transition

In order for Ethiopia’s democratic transition to stand any chance of success, the next election must be fair and competitive, and be seen to be so. One of the most immediate challenges to PP is that it will be difficult to win a free and competitive election as a pan-Ethiopian party while ethnicity remains the predominant political cleavage. 

Over the past three decades, ethnic nationalism occupied Ethiopia’s centre of political gravity, becoming the single most important principle shaping political life in the country.

Today, nationalist frameworks provide the normative vocabulary and ethical framework through which most political actors understand the nature of the problems facing their constituencies. In a society where ethnic consciousness holds significant explanatory power, and where there are salient and pronounced ethnic fault lines, it is unlikely non-ethnic parties, like the PP, will have a large following. 

It will be vulnerable to attacks by nationalist parties that claim to represent the exclusive and authentic voice of a people and examine everything from the vantage point of that group. Whatever its normative appeal, the promise of a pan-Ethiopian party will not be politically intelligible and is not going to carry a significant political weight in today’s Ethiopia. Ultimately, in a democratic and competitive election, ethnic groups are highly likely to support the party that speaks in their name. 

In other words, the likelihood of the Prosperity Party winning a free and democratic election in the near future is very slim, and this poses a significant threat to the transition.

If the Prosperity Party loses the election and agrees to hand over power to the opposition, that would throw the country into uncharted territories as there is no single political party or a coalition of political parties that have the ideological platform and the program that allows them to steer the country through these turbulent times. If the government wins the election unfairly or decides to stay on power after losing the election, that will automatically eliminate any prospect of a democratic transition and mark the beginning of a new form of authoritarianism. 

Risks to the multinational federation

Although the prime minister has reaffirmed his commitment to the federal project and sought to reassure people that the PP will not be a front for centralising power and homogenising the Ethiopian state, the new party is fraught with vulnerabilities.

For communities whose long-standing demands for genuine representation and cultural and linguistic equality is yet to be met, the Prosperity Party, as a vanguard party that is likely to dominate Ethiopian politics in the years to come, represents a considerable threat. 

One such risk is that once the current structure is dismantled and ethnic groups lose direct representation within the PP, their ability to advocate for their specific groups will be diminished, and they could lack influence over policy decisions that might undermine the federal structure. Moreover, the structural vulnerability of the PP means that the risks of anti-federalist forces taking over the party and dismantling the federal structure cannot be ruled out.

While reforming the EPRDF is long overdue, the current merger and the structure of the new party is fraught with structural and institutional challenges that could pose a fatal danger to the prospect of democratic transition. The party should have considered other less radical steps that could have addressed EPRDF’s crisis of legitimacy without putting the country on the edge of an abyss.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.