By Ephrem Madebo
Outside the academic world and the network of the few enlightened, to many Ethiopians, the word “Liberal Democracy” is a new buzz word; and to those of us who live in the Western world, especially in the US, the word “liberal” is one of the most confounding word. Is Liberal democracy good for Ethiopia? What is liberal democracy? What does the word liberal mean? Liberal democracy is a form of government in which the ability of the elected representatives to exercise decision-making power is subject to the rule of law and moderated by a constitution. In Liberal democracy, the constitution gives emphasis to the protection of the rights and freedoms of individuals and places constraints on the extent to which the will of the majority can be exercised against the rights of minorities. Liberal democracy may take the form of constitutional republic (USA), or constitutional monarchy (England). The objective of the article is not to define “Liberal democracy”; it is to provoke public discussion on the specific democratic practice that our country should adopt. I beg my readers to patiently read this relatively long article.
In the US, the words “liberal” and “conservative” are used interchangeably with the word “Democrat” and “Republican”. Though the extent of liberalism differs within the Democratic Party, democrats are usually considered to be liberals. In America, liberals endorse regulation for business, a limited social welfare, and support broad racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious tolerance. Often, but not always, liberals are tolerant of change and are not bounded by tradition. The term “liberal” in “liberal democracy” does not imply that the government of such a democracy must follow the political ideology of liberalism. It is merely a reference to the fact that liberal democracies feature constitutional protections of individual rights from government power. Liberalism refers to a broad array of related ideas, ideologies, philosophical views, and theories of government that consider individual liberty to be the most important political goal. Today in the world there are numerous different political ideologies that support liberal democracy (Christian Democracy, Social Democracy, and different forms of Socialist parties).
From the above statement, it goes without saying that liberalism is the philosophical foundation of Liberal Democracy. The ideology of liberalism is highly individualistic and concerns itself with limiting the power of the state over the individual. In contrast, democracy is concerned with empowering the masses. Competitive elections are among the common features of democracy that require freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the rule of law. It is important to notice that there are non-democratic governments that follow the principles of liberalism [liberal autocracies]. For example, Hong Kong had never held a meaningful election (until 1997), but its government epitomized constitutional liberalism protecting its citizens basic rights and administering a fair court system and bureaucracy.
Liberalism is a very wide concept, but for the purpose of this article, liberalism is a philosophical thinking that dominated the Western world for over two centuries, in which individual rights are protected and governments are limited. I hope I’ve introduced you to “liberalism” and “liberal democracy”, however, such an introduction will be limited if I fail to mention the moral principles of liberalism. In fact, the most important aspect of this article is to look deeply at the moral principles of liberalism and figure out how to adopt these principles and make them flourish in our cultural setting. The moral principles of liberalism are formed on two seemingly conflicting behavioral postulates. First, there is a general postulate that rational self-interest motivates all human actions. Second, there is also recognition that rational self-interest does not characterize human motivation always; instead, people are often driven by passions and irrational emotions. These two behavioral postulates form the four moral foundations of liberalism.
The universal self-interest postulate and the limited rationality postulate underlie several important moral principles of liberalism. The first moral principle is that everyone should be a judge of his or her own interest and welfare (principle of autonomy) The second is that different persons' interests are morally equal, i.e. no person, or no one class of persons, can claim its interest is nobler, or morally more superior, than any other persons or classes of persons (Principle of equality) The principle of equality implies that everyone's interest should receive equal consideration from a social perspective, and that every human being has the same intrinsic worth. The third moral principle is that everyone should be free to pursue his or her own interest and choice, subject to the "harm principle", i.e., in pursuit of his or her own interest, he or she cannot harm another person's legitimate interests. (Principle of freedom).The fourth and final principle is that everyone should bear the consequences resulting from his or her actions in pursuit of individual interests (principle of responsibility).
In this article the focus will be on the moral principles of liberalism because I do believe the lack of these moral principles is one of the factors that holds back the political process in our country. Other than the moral principles, in Ethiopia, the adoption of liberal democracy presupposes other preconditions. The formation of a significant middle class and a flourishing civil society are often seen as pre-conditions for liberal democracy. As is the case in Ethiopia, the introduction of free elections alone has rarely been sufficient to achieve a transition from dictatorship to democracy. A much wider shift in the political culture and a gradual formation of the institutions of democratic government are badly needed (Free press, transparent judiciary, and a politically independent military).
Instead of considering the above four moral principles, I want to make a head start with the two behavioral postulates which are the foundations for the four moral principles. The first postulate, universal self-interest, has important implications for our political way of thinking. It is absolutely true that every one of us is self-interested, so isn’t it true that our rulers are self-interested too? Isn’t it also true that they need to be ruled? Or, don’t political leaders need a constitutional brake? Yes they need,otherwise, the political system will be turned into a self-serving machine of politicians. In fact, the fundamental liberal claim of universal self-interest is the basic assumption behind the vital liberal political theory of separation of power, checks and balances, and limited government. Without separation of power and checks and balances, self-interested politicians will use their power for their own advantages, often at the expenses of the public good.
Like the assumption of universal self-interest, limited rationality and irrationality have important implications for liberal political thinking. First, limited rationality means that one goal of political institutions should be to enhance the cognitive intelligence of public decision-making. Second, limited rationality or irrationality implies that concentration of power can be very harmful or even disastrous. Separation of power as well as checks and balances are necessary, not only to prevent abuses of power due to the calculating self-interest of power holders, but also to make sure that the process of public decision-making is not seriously corrupted by decision makers' irrational passions and limited foresight.
We live in a society where politicians do everything to glorify themselves. As egoists as politicians are, they want to be the “bride” in a weeding, and the “coffin” in a funeral. However, this attitude of self-centeredness has nothing to do with the concept of “self-interest” in this article. Self-interest is a dominant moral principle, not only because of its egalitarian and democratic implications, but also because the rational pursuit of self-interest is a better alternative to the violent passion for glory. People may not always be rational in politics, but they are self-interested. There is no insinuation whatsoever that the self-interested behavior of politicians is always harmless; the truth is that it is far less dangerous than their violent and burning passion for power.
So what is the good of all these to our country? Well, first of all, knowing and fully understanding the moral and ideological foundations of liberal democracy helps us to make an informed decision if “liberal democracy” is among the alternatives that we prescribe for mama Ethiopia. Secondly, we know that liberal democracy and its moral foundations have their roots in the 18th century Europe. Obviously, we don’t have to adopt it in its entirety. Third, there is one very important thing that we should always bear in mind; democracy in our country must be implemented largely as a response to domestic out cry for liberty and democracy. They can definitely help us, but neither the US nor the Eu can give us the blueprint of democracy. Imposed, or induced democratization might not work in our country like it did in Post war Germany and Japan because Ethiopia does not have the domestic traditions and institutions that these two countries had.
Is liberal democracy good for Ethiopia?
Yes, liberal democracy is undisputedly good for Ethiopia, but if and only if its adoption is initiated by Ethiopians, and if it is adopted with the right dosage to fit the Ethiopian way of life. In Europe, the birth place of liberalism, no two democracies are identical, and in the US, the grand son of UK, liberal democracy is implemented differently. Liberal democracy as a political culture needs a fitting atmosphere for its endorsement, it cannot be imposed and expected to produce favorable political result. Any attempt to impose a western type of democracy without either the domestic resources or the political traditions is a recipe for illusion. Most Ethiopians view democracy as a system where people participate in vital decisions that affect their lives. But, when powerful countries like the US and UK impose their democracy and their values on our society, then we start loosing parts of the meaning of democracy as it becomes an imposed rule on us.
The cultural setting of our nation is dominated by traditional life style where the communal way of life dominates individual life style. Therefore, the emphasis of liberalism on the individual and individual rights may conflict with the community ethos of the Ethiopian society. In the US and Western Europe where the state is strong enough to protect collective rights, I think it is appropriate to focus on the protection of the rights of individuals. In Ethiopia, where we don’t have such a state, the level of individualization called by liberal democracy has a tendency to contribute to a rapid weakening of families and communities. Therefore, the transition to liberal democracy must be gradual and at the pace of our society without creating a cultural shock that may have a ripple effect on many aspects of our national life.
Evidently, democracy is a sought-after mode of political interaction, but in our case, problems may arise when we decide which specific democratic practice is more suitable for our social system to adopt. As far as multiparty politics is concerned, in ethnically divided societies such as ours, majority rule might drive the society in to a problem because it has a tendency to allow perpetual majority domination. In this case, ethnic minority groups may fear the tyranny of the majority whereas majorities constantly resent a minority rule. (In this article, ethnic majority or minority is strictly numeric).
Belgium is one of the ethnically divided countries of Western Europe which can be a good model to our country. In Belgium, political parties represent the political and linguistic interests of the communities, i.e. the parties are organized along community lines; especially for the two main communities, French speaking Walloons and Dutch speaking Flanders. Today, the core difference between the main ethnic groups of Belgium is not very much ethnic; their major disparity is based on political and demographic issues. The trade mark of the Belgian national politics is the highly federal nature of decision-making process. In the Belgian parliament, important decisions require 2/3 majority and the majority of the two main language groups (Flanders, Walloons). This by no means is a call for ethnic parties in Ethiopia, but just a reminder to stress that in a democracy there are non-ethnic solutions for ethnic problems. Fifty eight percent of Belgians are Flanders, but Flanders as a majority can not impose their will on the Walloons and the Cantons, not because they are saints, but the way the Belgian parliament is instituted.
The moral principles of liberalism and our political elites
The culture of democracy (tolerance of dissent, representation, and consensus) needs to develop from the very bottom of the society to the top. In our country, the negative political culture of the elite is characterized by intolerance, egotism, discrimination and contempt for a common person (particularly for “unlettered” rural residents). One of the moral principles of liberalism states that everyone should be free to pursue his or her own interest and choice without causing harm to others. This principle must be the credo of all Ethiopians and must be practiced by political leaders, intellectuals, professionals, students, business people, and common people. We, the Ethiopian elite must acknowledge that when we oppose the incumbent government, there are others who support [oppose us], therefore, we must pursue our own interest respectfully letting others who oppose us peruse theirs. If we believe and act as if our interest is nobler, or morally superior; we will be not only irrationals, but also self- centered bigots. With such an attitude, we cannot lead a household of two, leave alone a nation!
One of the key aspects of a democratic culture that the Ethiopian elite utterly lacks is the concept of a “loyal opposition”. In places like Ethiopia where transitions to power have often taken place through violence; the concept of loyal opposition is unthinkable to almost all of us. For example, parties within the opposition camp (CUDP, UEDF) have constantly been seen sticking stick on each others throat. UEDF, CUDP, or any other party may disagree on issues, but they must tolerate one another and acknowledge the important roles that each play. We as a society must establish ground rules that encourage respect, tolerance, and civility in public debate. Losers of a public debate must be ready to accept the judgment of the voters when elections are over, and allow for the “handshake” transfer of power. The losers must feel safe that they will neither lose their lives nor their liberty, and will continue to participate in public life. The losers of an election are loyal not to the specific policies of the government, but to the fundamental legitimacy of the state and to the democratic process itself.
The principle of responsibility implies that everyone should bear the consequences resulting from his or her actions in pursuit of individual interests. In the last thirty years, neither those in power nor those in the opposition were hold accountable for their actions. Colonel Mengistu killed countless Ethiopians, today, he lives peacefully in Zimbabwe. Meles Zenawi killed peaceful demonstrators in a broad day light, today; he is still in power to kill more. Through out the years, the Ethiopian opposition killed the hope of millions of Ethiopians, today; many of those same faces are running to forge yet another party. This is a very sad tradition that must be reversed as soon as possible. A nation that does not hold its leaders accountable for their action is a hot breeding place for political criminals.
In Ethiopia, elections have repeatedly failed to bring about radical changes to the leadership, to the political institutions, or to the polity. For example, in the last election when changes seemed eminent, the TPLF narcissists refused to accept the outcome as fair. Hence, instead of progressing, the country switched to political turmoil shortly after multiparty elections that were supervised by international observers. Almost three years after the May 2005 election, the TPLF regime is still unaccounted for the pitiful consequences that resulted from its in-humane actions.
The healthy growth of Liberal democracy in our nation depends on the earnestness and perseverance of those who plant democracy, and the readiness and fertility of the soil on which liberal democracy is planted. Yes, we can import the seeds of liberal democracy to our country, but we must genetically re-engineer the seed to make it grow in the Ethiopian atmosphere. Liberal democracy comes with rules and responsibilities. These rules and responsibilities must mean the same to all of us, and should be respected by all of us regardless of sex, ethnic background, level of education, and political power. As free as individuals are to pursue their own interest and choice, they should also be willing and ready to bear the consequences resulting from their actions. In Ethiopia that we dream, no person should be impeded from making choices, and no person should be left unaccounted for the consequences resulting from his/her choice. Are we ready to practice what we preach? Are we ready to agree to disagree? If yes, so help us God!