The right of minorities to political participation under the Ethiopian electoral system

Author:Beza Dessalegn
Position:Lecturer at Hawassa University, College of Law and Governance, School of Law
Pages:67-100
SUMMARY

Broad representation of different ethnic groups has implications in stability and the quality of democracy. The right to political participation is largely realized through the electoral system of a country. The choice among electoral systems should thus take various factors into account including the need for securing equitable representation, including minority groups. It is argued that the ‘fir... (see full summary)

 
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THE RIGHT OF MINORITIES TO POLITICAL
PARTICIPATION UNDER THE ETHIOPIAN
ELECTORAL SYSTEM
Beza Dessalegn
Abstract
Broad representation of different ethnic groups has implications in stability and
the quality of democracy. The right to political participation is largely realized
through the electoral system of a country. The choice among electoral systems
should thus take various factors into account including the need for securing
equitable representation, including minority groups. It is argued that the ‘first
past the post’ system embodied in Ethiopia’s electoral law denies national and
regional minorities equitable and adequate share of political power in the
respective federal and regional councils. Hence, taking into consideration
Ethiopia’s long history of competing ethnic nationalisms and lack of consensus,
there is the need for securing adequate representation proportional to the
numerical presence of minorities in constituencies in lieu of stubborn adherence
solely to the majoritarian plurality system.
Key words
Political participation, minorities, electoral law, electoral systems, ethnic
groups, equitable representation, Ethiopia
DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.4314/mlr.v7i1.4
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Introduction
Electoral system design is a key mechanism in the broader institutional design
approach to the resolution of conflict in multiethnic societies.1 This requires the
development of electoral systems so that democracies can function properly.2
Elections, not only enable citizens to elect political leadership, but also provide
Lecturer at Hawassa University, College of Law and Governance, School of Law.
1 Stefan Wolf, Electoral Systems Design and Power Sharing Schemes in Ian O’Flynn
and David Russell (eds.), 2005, Power Sharing: New Challenges for Divided Societies,
(Chase Publishing Services Ltd.), p. 59.
2 Jack Bielasiak (2002), “The Institutionalization of Electoral Party Systems in Post
Communist States”, Comparative Politics, Vol. 34, No. 2, (Jan 2002), p. 189.
68 MIZAN LAW REVIEW Vol. 7 No.1, September 2013
the mechanism through which people can exercise control over their government
officials.3
The electoral system adopted by a country depends more on its political
culture rather than any abstract consideration into the relative merits of different
voting methods.4 For example, countries with British political heritage are more
inclined to plurality and majority systems, while those influenced by continental
Europe have been more inclined towards proportional systems.5 It is also
determined by how a country’s political life is organized, taking into account
issues such as ethnicity, religion or a secular identity.
The right to political participation, which is a fundamental human right,
especially, as applied to citizens of a country, should be implemented by the
electoral system of a country to assure the equitable representation of
minority groups. This article deals with the right to political participation of
minorities in Ethiopia from the vantage point of the electoral system adopted.
I argue that, the voting methods espoused as well as the electoral law’s
language requirement for political empowerment of ethnic groups have not
provided a favourable atmosphere for minorities found both at the federal
and regional levels with respect to their right to political participation.
The first section of the article highlights the types of electoral systems that
exist in the world today. Section 2 briefly discusses how ethnicity as a mode of
political organization gained momentum and reached its political maturity in
Ethiopia. The article further discusses the nexus between electoral systems and
minority rights in the third section. This is further supported by Section 4 in
which an attempt is made to show how ethnic group determination and minority
right assertion took root in the Ethiopian federal system. Although general
reference is made to the federal and regional levels, the article discusses
regional minorities in the context of regional states. Section 5 addresses the right
to political participation in the context of Ethiopia’s electoral system. The
implication of the demand by several ethnic groups of their right to political
participation is discussed under section 6, followed by the last section which
deals with the way forward with regard to some of the issues.
3 Benjamin Reilly (2006), Democracy and Diversity: Political Engineering in The Asia-
Pacific, Oxford University Press, pp. 97-100.
4 Arend Lijphart (2008), Thinking About Democracy: Power Sharing and Majority Rule
in Theory and Practice, (Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group), p. 160.
5 Ibid.
THE RIGHT OF MINORITIES TO POLITICAL PARTICIPATION UNDER THE ETHIOPIAN ELECTORAL SYSTEM 69
1. Electoral Systems: A Brief Overview
Electoral systems may vary along three generic dimensions: “the ballot
structure, the district structure and the electoral formula”.6 The ballot structure
determines how citizens cast their votes and how their votes are counted. This
structure mainly focuses on five distinct features. The entities for which citizens
may vote, the number of votes that they cast for these entities, the category of
votes cast, the ballot system and to the extent to which relevant vote totals are
affected by the votes cast.7
The district structure refers to the numbers, hierarchy, and magnitude of the
electoral districts used in the system. An electoral district is defined as “a
geographical area within which votes are aggregated and seats allocated.” There
may be one single national electoral district or many. With multiple districts,
this structure may be allocated to a single tier or organized hierarchically into
multiple lower and upper tiers.8 Finally, there is the electoral formula which
determines how votes are translated into seats. The most basic and well known
formulas are the majority, proportional representation and mixed systems.9
As Moster observes, “[t]he existence of significant ethnic cleavages have
long held states in an insurmountable difficulty of maintaining democracy and
the task has been even harder in emerging democracies”.10 For this purpose,
different states have sought different mechanisms on how to overcome these
obstacles and successfully implant democracy in the face of deep ethnic
cleavages.11
To this end, achieving broad representation of different ethnic groups has
important implications for the stability and quality of democracy. Legislative
representation carries powerful symbolic power for ethnic minorities and often
becomes an end in itself even when minorities have little or no chance of
participating in the governing coalition.12
Electoral systems dictate how votes are counted into seats and they have a
number of pragmatic applications which were very much contentious in many
countries during the 1990’s, and this has given prominence to the issue thereby
6 Jan Teorell and Catharina Lindstedt (2010), “Measuring Electoral Systems, Political
Research Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 2, (June 2010), p. 435.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 Robert G Moster (2008), “Electoral Systems and the Representation of Ethnic
Minorities: Evidence from Russia”, Comparative Politics, Vol. 40, No. 3, (April
2008), p. 273.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid.

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