Monday, November 8

Politburo Knows Best I - Liberal Democracy

"Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried."
Winston Churchill

The dictionary definition of Democracy is 1) Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives. 2) A political or social unit that has such a government. 3) The common people, considered as the primary source of political power. 4) Majority rule. 5) The principles of social equality and respect for the individual within a community.

Within any country, millions of citizens and thousands of groups have often widely divergent and selfish interests. The common good is found in accepting the basic legitimacy of each individual's right to 'own' the country. Democratic institutions should then allow all of the individuals to work out their issues without folks getting killed or hurt.

Rather, democracy nakedly and without sentiment recognizes all of its citizens' frailties, power relationships and natural human selfishness. It attempts to translate those factors into the currency of votes and influence within limits set by law.

Outside of election rhetoric and social studies classes, democracy does not promise perfection and to be all things to all people. After all, humans thought it up and run it so it can't be perfect. Mankind has been led down the road to utopia by the high priests of far too many ideologies (in fact - secular religions - because they promise eventual paradise here on earth) and religious governments to trust in earthly paradise.

Essentially, a democratic system is a marketplace of interests. Here is an example of liberal democracy in action from The Addis Tribune - 'Ethiopians Go to Congress to Fight Autocratic Regime'. Ethiopian-Americans exert their rights as Americans to influence their government for the sake of their kin in Ethiopia who have no influence over their own government. After a maze of interests is navigated some benefit comes to all.
Ethiopian-Americans, many of whom fled Ethiopia for political reasons, are using democratic channels in the U.S. to establish democratic reform in their homeland.

Through elected representatives, the Ethiopian-Americans Council has introduced a bill, H.R. 5321 in the House of Representatives that urges the Ethiopian government to run free and honest elections that allow opposition parties to participate without fear of violent retribution.

The bill, sponsored by Congresssmen Mike Honda, (D-CA), Donald Payne (D-NJ) and Ed Royce (R-CA), also asks Congress to appropriate funds for monitoring the 2005 elections.

The U.S. acknowledged that the 2000 national and 2001 regional elections were mostly free and fair but still tainted by voter intimidation, killings and disappearances and unlawful detentions of opposition party supporters, particularly in the southern region.
The enterprising Ethiopian-Americans who started this ball rolling are following in a great tradition of American politics that has had repercussions worldwide. Like many others before them concerned with the people and events 'back home' in Israel, Ireland or India (to name just a few countries) they are very properly influencing American policy through moral suasion, votes and even contributions.

Three other groups that we know of, Ethio-PAC (Political Action Committee - 'Helping the Ethiopian American Voices be Heard'), The Citizen's League of Ethiopian Americans (CLEA) and The Ethiopian-American Constituency Foundation (EACF) are also engaged in similiar activities.

Ethiopian 'democracy' certainly needs all the help it can get. Let us take a closer look at the "Free and Fair Elections in Ethiopia Act of 2004 "also known as H.R. 5321 and what it says about why it was needed.
Congress makes the following findings:

(1) Relations between the United States and Ethiopia have improved significantly over the past decade, although human rights concerns in Ethiopia remain. The Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia has cooperated with the United States on a range of efforts, including combating global terrorism.
This point is key to every decision here. Before 1991 Ethiopia was ruled by a Soviet allied murderous military dictatorship that had been hostile to the U.S. and her interests for a decade and a half. With the ascension of the current government in Addis Ababa to power the country even became an ally of convenience of sorts.

This was because two of Ethiopia's neighbors were considered problems for American interests. Originally, the the Sudanese government was the major concern because of its history of exporting terror and internal genocide. Later, Somalia's anarchy and American involvement there put it on the list. After 9/11 those issues took on even more importance.

According to a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report there is a
Lack of reliable intelligence [that] has resulted in a dearth of hard evidence regarding terrorist operations in Africa, so U.S. officials are more likely to use deductive reasoning in determining whether or where to strike next. Likely candidates for U.S. action will likely possess the following criteria:

--areas with large, aggrieved Muslim populations;
--failed states;
--poor states, where security can readily be purchased;
--dangerous areas, where outside forces and individuals have limited access.

Somalia meets all of the aforementioned criteria and is thus a possible target for U.S. action.
Left unspoken and a part of America's concern is that Ethiopia, though just more Christian than Muslim, is in real danger of also acquiring a dangerous number of the above characteristics.

From the American point of view Ethiopia is unpredictable and potentially unstable - not inherently (Ethiopian Muslims and Christians have a long history of mutually productive national life) but because of its recent generations of bad governance that have been often based on the concept of divide and rule. This necessarily influences options on the degree of democratic rule and pressure it is safe to expect and worthwhile to exert. For example, the Clinton era alliance between Eritrea, Ethiopia and the U.S. against Sudan fell apart when the ruinous Ethiopian-Eritrean War began in 1998. That war, ostensibly over a strip of border land, was to all outsiders an exercise in futile destruction that served no one's interests.

In addition, for the past several decades Ethiopia has required constant attention from the West for recurrent famines and other human catastrophes. The American government has a very clear idea of what policies can make countries grow economically and become more stable. It is also equally clear that the Ethiopian government is not following those well worn paths to national development (as readers of ethiopundit have seen in abundance - just check out most of the 'recent posts' at this blog).

So the U.S. (and the European Union) is content to avert catastrophe by providing increasing amounts of aid and budget support to give Ethiopians what their government can't or won't do for them or let them do for themselves. Foreign governments, of course, serve their own people's interests and tragically they are often the only actors interested in serving the interests of the Ethiopian people as well.

Right now the principal issue for the U.S. in the region is the War on Terror. The U.S. and Ethiopia assert a strong al Quaeda presence in Somalia and on occasion Ethiopian troops have crossed the border in hot pursuit or to disrupt training camps. American troops are already in nearby Djibouti and conducted joint deployments in Ethiopia during 2004.

Carnegie feels that al Itihaad, a Somali organization, is the real threat to Ethiopia and the region and that the al Quaeda issue is occasionally manipulated to advantage. However, it is probably better to discount this concern of Carnegie and to trust the American and Ethiopian intelligence to the contrary and to play it safe rather than sorry on this sensitive issue.

Back to H.R. 5321
(2) In 1995 and 2000, the Government of Ethiopia organized and conducted local, regional, and national elections. In 1995, some opposition parties boycotted the elections, despite offers and support by donor governments, including the United States, to help ensure free and fair elections. Opposition parties, including those outside of Ethiopia, have a responsibility and duty to play a constructive role in building democracy in Ethiopia and to engage the Government of Ethiopia in peaceful dialogue.
This part is a frank warning to the opposition not to expect too much American help because of this bill. The opposition boycotted previous elections for emminently understandable reasons - they weren't real elections in any sense. However, U.S. concern is definitely not to be interpreted as a blank check nor even an expectation of much improvement in government behavior - it is an expression of largely symbolic concern and a very gentle warning that there are limits to American tolerance for the poor record of the Ethiopian government.
(3) The Department of State, in its most recent country reports on human rights practices, determined that `the 2000 national elections and the 2001 regional elections [in Ethiopia] were generally free and fair in most areas but were marred by serious irregularities, including killings, disappearances, voter intimidation and harassment, and unlawful detentions of opposition party supporters, particularly in the southern region.
That list of 'irregularities' makes a conclusion of free and fair elections difficult to understand. Please continue to read the rest of the bill here. The last point made is
(8) The decision by the Government of Ethiopia to allow international elections observers contributes to a more free and fair elections process and should be commended.
Overall, despite attention to the fact that Ethiopia's democratic process is deeply flawed a best, H.R. 5321 seems to be showing great delight that any form of democracy, however insincere, exists.

The $10 million allocated for democracy observers in Ethiopia along with other international efforts will make the government behave slightly better and will make a small but positive difference. Representative Honda and the others deserve thanks for their interest and intentions that probably had to survive a gauntlet of reservations and careful considerations by the State Department (that was just doing its own job).

Not much is being demanded at all from the Ethiopian government in the way of any democracy as it is understood in the rest of the world. This makes some sense in light of the War on Terror and general American nightmares that Ethiopia may become a failed state at any moment that the Pentagon will be called upon to stabilize.

American policy is not based upon admiration or friendship for the Ethiopian government but rather a stark appraisal of general U.S. interests to see Ethiopia stable, out of the headlines and not in crisis. Beyond those limits very very low expectations reign.

The fact that long term American interests in Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa and Africa as a whole lie in actual democracy and the stability those institutions can bring is apparent to the U.S. government.

However, even for the world's only superpower with all of its powers both real and imagined... some cooperation from the local government is needed to do very much good in the process of building a democratic society.

Without the watchful eye of foreigners in the Americas and Europe who are concerned with the Ethiopian political process the situation would be far worse. There are limits to what even the most realpolitik of Western donors will go along with. Ethiopia's rulers are absolutely dependent on foreign money so they must tame their totalitarian instincts within sight of donors. U.S. an E.U. observers will go home after they witness election activities at a very limited number of places - but their observations will certainly be better that the usual.

The actions of the interested Ethiopians within the American political process show Liberal Democracy at its very best. Without their efforts the situation 'back home' would be far worse. Indeed, the strong hand of the Ethiopian government extends even to the Western world where harrassment and intimidation are becoming alarmingly routine among the communities of the diaspora. Manipulation of the diaspora through 'concerns' expressed for the well being of family and friends in Ethiopia along with frank threats are ongoing.

The Ethiopian rulers will only become more dependent on the West because their governance is so insecure they can not take any risks with letting any economic or social activity take place outside of their direct and suffocating control.

Necessarily self interested foreigners will remain the principal but uneven guarantors of the interests of the Ethiopian people. Ethiopian immigrants in the U.S. number from one half to one million and have rapidly established themselves very successfully in the society. Ethiopian-Americans can expect to have ever increasing amounts of influence and power within this equation of power as time goes on.

H.R. 5321 is just a start.

We will examine the tragic litany of violations to the dignity of human life that are routine to the lives of 70 million Ethiopians in the next post of this series Politburo Knows Best II - Human Rights. It is hard to imagine a democracy without human rights. H.R. 5321 is not alone in its low expectations from Ethiopian governance.

Liberal democracy makes necessary concessions to human nature but Ethiopia's self styled Revolutionary Democracy represents an utter betrayal of the human spirit as we shall examine in Politburo Knows Best III- Revolutionary Democracy.

Politburo Knows Best IV - Democratic Pretension will take a look at the actual conduct of elections in Ethiopia and the engines of control that the government has in 'neighborhood associations'.

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