The problem with multi-party democracy

Whatever one’s view of the ongoing reforms, the fact is that a general election is expected to be held in the next few months, bringing with it, for the first time, Western-style multi-party democracy.

It is not surprising that the Western media have judged this entirely positively, and taken for granted that this is a development that will be mostly beneficial for the Ethiopian society, bringing the country ‘out of the shadows of dictatorship’.

As might be expected, the Ethiopian media has reacted in much the same way. Holding the elections within the next couple of months – and not opting to postpone them much further, because of potential security concerns – is, generally, seen as a good thing.

But while some commentators have argued that it would be prudent to postpone the vote until the security situation has improved, there is one thing people – whether opposition politicians, self-styled activists, journalists, commentators, or the general public – seem to, virtually universally, agree on, and take for granted: Western-style multi-party democracy is a good thing, which, without question, Ethiopia must adopt, as it is a sign of a matured democracy.

Singing its praises, some will stress that it is in line with the concept of “Synergy.” It will give previously banned; dissenting voices the chance to be heard.

It will, ultimately, be beneficial for society.

Once this multi-party democracy has been established, people will reap the plentiful advantages thereof.

In fact, there really are no disadvantages to multi-party democracy. It has been entirely beneficial, wherever it has been established. Western countries, with their prosperity, pluralistic, diverse views, lifestyles and cultures, are the ultimate proof.

These, simply put, seem to be the dominant views these days.

But, is this actually true? Is multi-party democracy really, as it were, ‘automatically’, beneficial for society? And, crucially, are there really no problems, no potential risks, no downsides, as many, politicians included, take for granted?

What of Western countries? Are they really proof that multi-party democracy brings with it prosperity, and a wonderfully diverse society that, yet, is at peace with itself?

Putting these hypotheses to the test, and duly investigating, let us, first, make some general observations.

As wonderful and ‘maturely democratic’ the concept of ‘free and fair elections’ – the precondition to multi-party democracy – may seem, there is a simple fact that must not be overlooked: Elections, by their very nature, tend to divide societies.

Of course, the damage this divisiveness does, depends on a number of factors – such as the subject of the election, the sociopolitical context, or the ‘democratic tradition’ of the country. However, it cannot be denied that there is a certain risk of societal division, inherent to elections in general, multi-party democracy in particular.

To give obvious examples: The referendum on whether or not the United Kingdom (UK) should leave the European Union (EU) has divided British society. It has become highly polarized, and the divisions will doubtless take some time yet to heal.

Similarly, the issue of immigration has been extremely divisive, causing real societal damage in the EU.

Considering the potential implications of societal division and polarization in the context of Ethiopia, it is hard not to be concerned.

But, that is not the only problem with elections and multi-party democracy. There is, arguably, an even bigger problem.

If we look at the state that, for instance, European societies have found themselves in, we can observe that, all too often, people have voted against their own interests.

All too often, vast segments of society have voted for politicians whose stated – and unstated – policies were diametrically opposed to the interests of these very voters.

Examples illustrate this phenomenon.

When, in the UK, people – business owners and farmers included – voted to leave the EU, this, as some later realized, would almost certainly negatively impact their lives and their livelihoods.

In Germany or Austria, many people with low incomes, particularly in more rural areas, have ‘traditionally’ voted for the ‘Conservatives’, a party with a clearly neoliberal program, which, most certainly, has not benefitted these voters.

Looking at other regions of the world, the same picture emerges.

In many Latin American countries, people have voted for governments that have pursued what might be described as ‘hardcore neoliberal policies’, with large-scale privatization, and a reduced role of the state.

Public services have deteriorated, to the point where, at last, people have had enough of their government’s neoliberal approach, and have been openly showing their discontent.

Obviously, there are many other examples. But one of the more striking ones is, arguably, the United States, where many voters believed that the current president was ‘their guy’, represented their interests, and would safeguard, or bring back, jobs, or protect workers’ rights.

However, this turned out not to be the case. Indeed, many have been shocked by the fact that anyone could believe the current president would ‘protect the interests of the small guy’.

Having examined thus, the question arises: Why is it that, given a free choice, people so often vote against their own interests?

In light of the examples considered here, the answer should now be obvious: It is because of a lack of information, understanding, or analysis, on the part of the electorate. Often, people do not take the time to actually investigate if, for instance, politicians’ words match their deeds. Alas, voters often make anything but an informed decision, but allow themselves to be misled by dishonest, manipulative, corrupt, power-greedy politicians.

As a recent example par excellence, the campaign for the UK to leave the EU can be cited.

The factually incorrect claim by the “Leave” camp about the amount of money Britain was sending ‘to Brussels’, and that this, should Britain leave the bloc, would be used to fund the National Health Service (NHS), has become infamous. And it should certainly be noted at this point that the EU is in no way to blame for the state of Britain’s public healthcare. Forty years of neoliberal policies are the real culprit.

But, once again, the people voted for the governments that pursued these policies. Time and time again, the electorate chose them.

Of course, it is entirely understandable why voters are often ill-informed. After all, analyzing, examining, researching, comparing politicians’ statements with their actions, for instance, take time and real effort. They do not happen ‘automatically’, but are a conscious choice that every individual must make for themselves.

And, now, having thus analyzed, the conclusion should be straightforward.

If multi-party democracy is to work in the interest of society – rather than the wealthy, or multi-national corporations, or those who seek to divide it – it requires a well-informed, discerning, non-emotional, analyzing, participating electorate.

Or, to put it differently: Multi-party democracy only works for the benefit of society, if we are well-informed, non-emotional, and actively participating. A multi-party democracy that works for the majority requires the active engagement of the majority. It will only work for us, if we work for it.

Alas, all too often, the electorate has not done its due diligence, and suffered greatly as a consequence.

This simple fact, so often ignored or overlooked, in the context of Ethiopian politics, should cause us all, including politicians, to adopt a more cautious, less enthusiastic, attitude.

It is the problem with multi-party democracy.

The Ethiopian Herald Friday 24 January 2020


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