A formidable opposition? – By Neamin Ashenafi

By Neamin Ashenafi
Yilikal Getnet (Eng.) is the President of Semayawi (Blue) Party.

He assumed the position since the party’s establishment in 2012 after a group broke- off from the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJ) due to differences in the party following the latter’s decision to work with The Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum (Medrek). The party is registered by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) to contest in the May general election, which will be its first since establishment. Following the recent high-profile decision of the Board regarding the leadership wrangle in the UDJ and the All Ethiopian Union Party (AEUP), disgruntled members of UDJ are flocking to the Blue Party, which is accepting them with open arms. Neamin Ashenafi of The Reporter sat down with the president of Blue to discuss recent political developments in the country and many other issues surrounding the upcoming general election. Yilekal was asked to talk about alternatives that his party is offering to the electorate, the new manifesto of the party, the cooperation of nine parties where Blue is a leader and other pertinent issues. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Let us start with Semayawi (Blue) Party’s overall preparation for the upcoming election?

Yilikal Getnet: As it is an election year, the general assembly and the council of the party have held several deliberations to approve, in September, a special plan for the year. Our main target is to win the election with a two-third absolute majority. We are working towards that by fielding candidates in all regions of the country except for some remote areas.  Some 400 candidates are registered and we aim to win in 380 constituencies. We have finalized in having our candidates registered but with the extended timetable we would make some adjustments. We have detailed action plan and organizational capability to achieve our target. We are preparing manifesto and policy briefs. In addition, we have formed cooperation with eight other political parties under the motto ‘freedom for fair election’ to ensure a level playing field which has been restricted since 2005. With these two strategies we hope to mobilize the public, build our organizational capacity, regain our constitutional rights the ruling party deprived us and come out victorious.

How many candidates do you plan to field?

With the remaining time we may have as much as 500 candidates registered. Many leaders and members of Andinet [Unity for Democracy and Justice] and AEUP [All Ethiopian Unity Party] are joining our party because of what happened to both parties. So, the number of candidates we are going to field might reach up to 500.

Beyond a general liberal democracy ideology your party ascribes to, do you offer clear alternatives in terms of policy and so on?

First and foremost, we would work massively to ensure quality education that would enable our citizens to be more competitive. The other is narrowing income inequality. While few are getting richer, some 34 million are still living under the poverty line. So, we intend to focus on massive poverty reduction schemes, creating more job opportunities targeting the poor and ensuring their political, social and economic guarantees.

We will work with Ethiopian farmers to own their land, not for them to sell it for quick gains, but so that they can get more benefits out of it. Owning their land means they can better develop it or mortgage it to get bank loans. It is also a political guarantee for the farmer – that no one can forcefully evict him from his land.

We would also focus on factors that unite us than divides us by embracing our diversity. To take pride in our history and in who we are; to learn from our past mistakes and move forward rather than dwell on wrongs of the past to quarrel with one another. These are the major ones to put it simply.

Have you included these in the manifestos you are preparing for people to examine them?

Sure. Not only that, we also point out the flaws in the ideologies and policies the ruling party ascribes to and the alternatives we are offering. It is prepared in a way our voters can easily understand.

When will you reveal the manifesto?

I would assume it will be out by the time campaigning begins. Probably, during the last week of February; but surely it will happen within a month. The major work is done; it is about expediting the work that remains.

How many members does your party have?

We do not know the exact number at this moment. Like I have said, almost all members of UDJ have joined our party. This has brought an abrupt change to the number of our members. It was something we did not expect. We had around 50 thousand members, according to data from two months ago.

What would you say is Blue Party’s fundamental difference from the ruling party?

In plain language, the basic difference is our willingness to take the people on board and promote the wisdom that exists within the people as opposed to the EPRDF’s all-knowing and restrictive approach. We want to create an environment where all Ethiopians can contribute according to their calling. A government should only play the role of a facilitator and coordinator. But EPRDF follows a restrictive top-down approach where planning is done by few and carried out by others. In addition, their approach is divisive but we focus on unity in diversity. They follow linguistic-based federalism but we include other factors such as culture, settlement, administrative ease, geography and resources. The land policy now in place gives the government and the party the right to control land but we want urban dwellers and farmers to own their land and we will privatize land, except for the communal ones. These are the major ones.

The large number of opposition political parties competing against one other have made it more advantageous for the ruling EPRDF by dividing votes. If you want to form a coalition with other opposition parties, what commonalities or differences does Blue Party has with AEUP or UDJ?

A political party worthy of the name is the one highly regarded by the public, can influence the international community, is better placed in terms of support, has membership or financial capacity and is with a real chance to assume power. But, there are parties with one or two members but what sort of alternative or hope do these parties offer for the public? So, in my view the major ones are EPRDF, Medrek and, recently, Blue Party and Andinet. I would not put AEUP in the same category as it is facing a split. There are those with similar policies with the EPRDF but who oppose the manner they are being implemented. There are others like Medrek who aspire for true federalism and respect for the right of nations and nationalities. And differently, there are parties like Semayawi and others who strive for strong unity that accommodate our diversity. So, there are three major groups of political parties. We have distinct difference with Medrek in areas like the federal system and land policy we wish to implement. They are more like centrist or social democrats whereas we are center right or liberal democrats that favor a small government.

Following the National Electoral Board’s decision regarding UDJ, large number of members and those in the leadership have joined Semayawi Party. Had it not been for the Board’s decision, this might not have happened. What is the core difference between the two parties that prevented a merger in the past?

Putting detailed policy differences aside, the level and commitment of the leadership and their understanding of the political landscape are factors that need to be considered. For example, we call peaceful political rallies by notifying authorities and without seeking permission. And we pay the necessary sacrifice for it. Some view these as emotionally driven, unwise or acts of defiance.

In your last press conference, you said the electoral board’s decision proved a blessing in disguise as it enabled somewhat of a merger of the two parties. Is this coming from your past as former member of Andinet which claims to be the rightful heir to the popular Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) of 2005 or the trials and tribulations of past failed attempts to form mergers? 

Both can be taken as factors. What the Board and the EPRDF did on UDJ and AEUP was also attempted on Semayawi. In my view, it was a campaign to discredit the institutional wellbeing of these political parties. That is why you see these campaigns against these parties, including Medrek, all at one time. But we took a firm stand to resist it. It was a futile propaganda campaign aimed at portraying the opposition political parties as weak and divided so that the public elects EPRDF even if they do not like it. So, our coming together quashes all those efforts. It shows that opposition political parties can resist the pressure from the regime and join forces. Secondly, we have been unable to form a merger due to minor differences. UDJ and Medrek were once one party. But they are now working separately. So, there is no longer major difference between UDJ and Semayawi. Had the merger took the normal course, details like what should be the name of the party, the leadership composition and so on would have taken some time. But now, that fence is quickly demolished by the Board’s decision.

You have also said that formalities in place for individuals who wish to be a member of Blue Party will be bypassed for newly joining former members of UDJ. Can you tell us what these formalities are?

There are basic formalities such as one needs to be above the age of 18, should not be legally or mentally interdicted, and is not a member of another political party. As long as these are observed, any Ethiopian who supports Semayawi’s programs can be a member of the party. But he/she remains as member-elect for a six weeks induction period where we also do background checks. Upon completion, the party’s two members of the leadership will attest by signing the full membership of the individual. But the other is, the party’s executive committee may grant full membership without the need for the individual to undergo the induction period if it is of the view that doing so would be advantageous for the party. Both methods are stipulated on our party’s bylaws. And as you are aware, members of UDJ are committed and have been in political struggle for long. They do not need an induction. So, with the executive committee’s decision and in accordance with the party’s bylaw, they get full membership.

How many of these new members are representing the Blue Party in the upcoming general election?

Actually I don’t have the data at this time but through our different structures across regional states we have many members registering to stand for election. In the capital city, there are 23 city council seats for which we are planning to run. However, now we are holding it off to see if we can find better qualified candidates from the newly joining former UDJ members. Now that we have become one party, we don’t see it as UDJ or Blue party candidates; we would be represented by a better candidate regardless of which party he/she came from.

Recently, you were involved in some sort of a dispute with a local radio station, Fana Broadcasting Corporate. I have learnt that it has to do with some interview you conducted with the radio station. What happened there?

In our view, the ruling party has launched a major campaign against the opposition parties in the country in a desperate ploy to convince the public that the opposition is weak and divided and cannot be a viable contestant. This is fairly visible in what happened to the two political parties that we have discussed above. We have seen that radio station in question is a major instrument in this all-out campaign against opposition parties. So, what happened with the interview I had with Fana was an extension to what the ruling party and the Board have been doing to discredit the opposition camp among the public. So, they approached me to do an interview and I agreed to record it in the station’s studio. When, I arrived to do the interview at the studio, what I have encountered was not what we have discussed. They had video cameras ready to record not only my voice but also to film the interview. But, I refused and we settled by sticking on the radio interview. All in all, it was a two-hour interview, and as caution against doctoring the tape of the interview I also kept my own copy of the interview on my cell phone. One day before the airing of the interview, the host of the program called me to inform me that the recording of our interview was in fact damaged and cannot be aired as scheduled. Surprised, how such a radio station with state-of-the-art equipments can succumb to damages to recordings, I offered to share my version of the recordings. However, he refused saying it is not broadcast quality. Now, in another unrelated incident, another crew from the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation came to our office to conduct an interview with the head of public relations of the Blue Party, Yonathan Tesfaye. Similarly, this hour and a half interview was also scraped. I have come to realize that the sorts of questions which were presented to both me and Yonathan were the same focusing on party’s intentions to incite public violence around election time. However, I suspect both of the interviews did not achieve their target of staining the good name of the party.

But the host of the show said on air that you are welcome to attend the discussion once more and that what happened last time was an unfortunate technical failure on the part of the station. Would you dare go again on the show once more?

Of course that is why I went there in the first place. In fact, it was the host who made up excuses not to air my interview in the first place. If we see, our previous experiences with UDJ, it was Fana who made the recordings, both audio and video, and gave it to EBC to air it. So, I had a hard time buying the excuse that is the recording has encountered some sort of malfunction and have been lost. Nevertheless, if invited, I would still be open to go on the show and have the discussion again.

Let us talk about the nine-party cooperation that the Blue party is spearheading. The controversies surrounding the Board regarding the cooperation’s legal status still hangs in the air. What is this entity doing at this time?

I think we are going to have a formal press briefing very soon to inform the public of our next course of action. The cooperation is working with a leading slogan of “freedom for fair election” in which we will ask the ruling party to stop the repression so that public can go out and elect its leaders freely. However, what we are seeing now is proof of the repressive tactics that is employed by the ruling party. Our next move would be to stage a nationwide peaceful demonstration under the same slogan. In this regard, we are planning to stage a demo across 15 cities in the country in February, all at the same time. With new members joining the our party from UDJ, we now have more force and resources to hold a demonstration like this across the nation. Anyway we are planning to give a press briefing soon to notify the public of what we will be doing. Nevertheless, things have been a bit slow on the nine-party cooperation front for a few months now. This was because all the parties in the cooperation were preoccupied by the issue of candidate registration for the upcoming general election. Ethiopia is a very big county, and the logistical requirement to run for election across the nation is quite immense. Most of the parties including mine were busy registering candidates for the election across the nation. If you ask me for instance, we had most of our members engaged in the candidates’ registration task across the country. But now, we have more or less completed this task and are ready to come back to the agenda pursued by the nine-party cooperation.

One of the parties in the nine-party cooperation is AEUP. Based on the decision of the Board that is announced last week, the AEUP party is split into two with the group led by Abebaw Mehari formally recognized by the Board as the legal leadership. Which AEUP is in the cooperation? 

One thing that has to be clear is that our relationship is with the party not individuals. So, our relationship was with parties who were holding the legal seal and certificate. At the time, the leadership of Abebaw Mehari was legally recognized by the Board as head of AEUP. Although the leadership of Abebaw also had some issues with the Board, the cooperation inherently was an alliance on some strategic issues, not a structural relationship. After the disputed leadership case was arbitrated by the Board, the party has not made any formal communication with cooperation. We are waiting for them to clear their internal party issues and get united and come forth to work with cooperation. So, the leadership issues are in fact not that significant of a challenge to the cooperation. But, we can not conclude that the leadership issues in AEUP had no impact on the activities of the nine-party cooperation. For one, it has created a greater confusion among AEUP’s support base both locally and abroad which in turn is having a bearing on the capability of the party and the cooperation to mobilize resources. For instance, if we see the number of people who were imprisoned during the recent demonstration of the cooperation it is hundreds of Blue Party members against five or six AEUP members. This shows you how this party is not devoting all its capacity for this work due to the leadership problem which it has not solved at the time.

As you know the ruling party has unique advantage to campaigning on the grounds of the already implemented infrastructural projects which the public is witnessing first hand and are already giving service. What concrete deliverables did the Blue Party have to sway votes away from the ruling party which is campaigning on basis of already implemented projects?

We do have a lot of things that we are going to offer to our voters. But, I am not sure if it is the right time to discuss them now, tactically. You see, we believe most of the ideas that ruling party took up to implement after the 2005 election is that of the CUD’s. So, why do we need to reveal our strategic points now; the ruling party might swiftly take them and say that they are its own. If I have to give you highlights, no doubt that we will be offering an alternative where the youth would find employment, wealth will be distributed fairly, power will be devolving to public and accountability will strengthen. We will also offer a system where this process will be freely scrutinized by a free and independent media. This being the case, all these changes would take time. The process of institution building requires time. However, as Ethiopians we believe that we could and we would improve on a lot of things just by setting up the democratic system.



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