Crises are a time-tested means of subverting democracy.
From Getúlio Vargas and other better-known dictators in the 1930s to Indira Gandhi and Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and on to Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan more recently, autocratic-minded leaders have long used national emergencies — some real, some fabricated — to claim extraordinary powers. One of my greatest concerns about Abiy Ahmed’s premiership has always been that he would exploit (or invent) a crisis in order to justify an abuse of power. Recent events have given this concern new immediacy.
Authoritarian leaders often chafe under the constraints of constitutional rule. Democratic politics is, after all, grinding work. Family businesses and army units may be ruled by fiat, but democracies require negotiation and concessions. Setbacks are inevitable; victories always partial. A Leader’s most cherished policy initiatives may be savaged in the media, derailed by the parliament or struck down by the courts.
Former US President Bill Clinton, who was elected on a promise of health care reform, devoted the first two years of his administration to a universal health insurance bill only to see it die in Congress. President George W. Bush claimed a mandate to reform Social Security after his 2004 re-election, but the initiative went nowhere. All leaders suffer such defeats. In a democracy, leaders must have patience and thick skin. They must be able to compromise. And crucially, they must be able to lose.
Autocratic-minded leaders, by contrast, find democratic politics intolerably frustrating. Most lack the skills or the temperament for the give-and-take of everyday politics. They are allergic to criticism and compromise. They have little patience for the intricacies of the legislative process. To cite one example, an aide to former President Alberto Fujimori of Peru noted that Mr. Fujimori “couldn’t stand the idea of inviting the president of the Senate to the presidential palace every time he wanted Congress to approve a law.” For would-be authoritarians, the checks and balances inherent in parliamentary democracy feel like a straitjacket. The media criticism, legislative oversight and adverse court rulings leave them feeling besieged.
Crises offer these would-be authoritarians an escape from constitutional shackles. National emergencies — especially wars, pandemics or major terrorist attacks — do three things for such leaders. First, they build public support. Security crises typically produce a rally-round-the-flag effect in which presidential approval soars. Citizens are more likely to tolerate — and even support — authoritarian power grabs when they fear for their safety. Second, security crises silence opponents, since criticism can be viewed as disloyal or unpatriotic. Finally, security crises loosen normal constitutional constraints. Fearful of putting national security at risk, judges and legislative leaders generally defer to the executive.
National emergencies can threaten the constitutional balance even under democratic-minded presidents like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. But they can be fatal under would-be autocrats, for they provide a seemingly legitimate (and often popular) justification for concentrating power and eviscerating rights. Hitler’s authoritarian response to the 1933 Reichstag fire is the most prominent example.
Similarly, President Marcos of the Philippines did not want to step aside when his second term expired in 1973. But he needed a reason to subvert constitutional checks. An opportunity arrived in 1972, when a series of explosions rocked Manila. Following an apparent assassination attempt on his defense secretary, Marcos, blaming communist terrorists, declared martial law and established a dictatorship. This crisis, too, was largely fabricated: The bombings are believed to have been carried out by government forces and the assassination attempt was staged. The “communist menace” that Marcos used to justify martial law amounted to several dozen insurgents.
The case of Ethiopia
Although PM Abiy operates in a different political environment, his behavior, particularly since they side lined Lemma, betrays similar autocratic instincts. The PM manifestly lacks the patience or negotiating skills needed to deal with divided political environment. His response to opposition in Tigray and else where has been a refusal to compromise and, more dangerously, a refusal to lose. Unlike democratic leaders, who concede defeat when it became clear that their initiatives lacked support, Dr. Abiy has refused to accept his loss. Unable to obtain the necessary votes in TPLF for it to merge into PP, the PM recklessly threatens a war. When that didn’t get him his Merge, he moved to declare a state of emergency using the corona threat as a pretext which according to his party member ‘will be used to crush TPLF’, although the declaration of SoE was a right move to contain the COVID crisis, its being used for political purposes rather than what was intended.
Ever since the declaration of the state of emergency we have witnessed a spike in political imprisonment in Oromia region, in a media environment that is focused on the prevention of COVID-19, political imprisonment has become the new normal, the PM’s Government is now widely operating its scare strategy in a broader spectrum which was earlier limited to just Wollega and Guji.
The hypocritical ruling party couldn’t care less about the restrictions that were put place, as it was holding meetings even after the restrictions. They are using it to clean house, firing Oromo nationalists from the party and threatening wealthy Oromo businessmen.
After the cancellation of the previously planned elections triggered a constitutional crisis, the PM office has proposed 4 ways to go forward, of which one suggested further declaration of emergency which is not only unconstitutional but if allowed will most certainly be used to crush the opposition parties and establish the one-man rule PM Abiy dreams of.
Needless to say, we are slipping into a new dictatorship. The only way out of this crisis is clear: An Elite Pact. will the government allow it? it remains to be seen