Home Party Documents Party Documents DEMOCRACY IN ERITREA
Written by Herui T. Bairu   
Sunday, 16 May 2010 13:41

A decade ago I posted to Awate an essay in two parts that all agree inaugurated the democratic movement against the dictatorship. This essay was a culmination of letters and articles that campaigned for elections. Isaias’ regime responded by announcing: Election 2001. This is the first part; the second part shall follow soon.


by Herui T. Bairu



In 1994, the Third Congress of the EPLF transformed itself from a front into a party; adopted a political document called the ‘National Charter'; and elected a new executive committee. The new party, which is better known to the public by its acronym the PFDJ, became the sole, legitimate, political organization in Eritrean politics. As it is today, the PFDJ controls the commerce, industry, and financial institutions of Eritrea. It controls the Eritrean masses at the governmental, administrative and mass organizational levels, controls the cultural output of the country, and holds the lid on the Eritrea army.

In the context at hand, it is relevant to mention that the PFJD was the prime mover and sole organizer in preparing and ratifying the constitution. It took two years to round off the work of the constitution; it gathered dust in the cupboard for almost four years - including the war years; now circumstances have propelled the democratic demand to the forefront.



Until recently, the detractors of the multi-party system argued that the Eritrean masses were not sufficiently mature to partake in the democratic process or that in a multi- ethnic society the masses were exposed to the danger of being divided along tribal or ethnic lines. The overwhelming majority of the Eritrea people, however, have adopted the position that the viability of the democratic system does not lie in hand-tailored perfection, but rather in expanding the in-born ability of the individual Eritrean to grasp issues that affect his or her interests.

·         The dangers of ethnic fragmentation or alliances, as the case might be, can be held in check by simple electoral rules. Eritrean democracy shall be based on the Adi strategy. This means that citizens of voting age have the right to vote in the Adi Baitos (communal council), the Awraja Baitos (county council), and the Hagerawi Baito (national parliament) elections simultaneously. National parties need to satisfy the following conditions:

-            a leadership elected in a party conference/congress

-            a minimum membership size - to be decided in the future

-            the support of a minimum of a given percentage of the national voting population, and

-            a given percentage of the electorate in all the provinces.

In societies where there is freedom of expression; freedom of assembly and association; freedom to partake in the elective processes; and a free market that enhances the spirit of creative initiative; the people tend to learn about democracy by practicing it, and eventually, by growing into it in a responsible way. Besides, Eritreans who have fought for independence, and made sacrifices in order to preserve it, can hardly be dismissed as unprepared for democracy. The present democratic demand is an expression of multiple political impulses in the Eritrean body politic:

(1) To the surprise of many, the PFDJ has maneuvered itself into the centre stage of the growing demand for the implementation of constitutional government. Many think that this sudden sense of urgency is motivated by the desire to legitimize the existing power structure by a ‘democratic' face lift. It is no secret that there are also forces within the power structure, which aim to limit the deification of the power structure.

(2) Contrary to the assertions of some political analysts, the Eritrean people have registered its desire to institute democratic rule before and after independence.

(3) The demand of the international community for political and economic openness in Eritrea has become so urgent that the government can ignore it only at the risk of international isolation. The perennial question is: how can a multi-party system function in Eritrea when the cards of the PFDJ are stacked against potential parties of the future?



We have already seen how the PFDJ has in effect erased the old EPLF and replaced it as the main power centre in Eritrean politics. Individuals, whose roles in the Eritrea revolution were not central, replaced the old guard of the EPLF. The new party went even further and enunciated that it shall be the torchbearer of the new economy and the new culture that was assembled in the liberated zones. Eritreans are bewildered by the astonishing ambition of the PFJD to substitute traditional values, which in the end, make up the hubris of Eritrean identity: we worry a trifle when the ‘Adi Eritrea', for which life was laid, is substituted by ‘Hadas Eritrea', which is a construct of the PFDJ.



The first feature of the Eritrea constitution that requires attention is the omission of the term ‘party' and its replacement by the notion ‘political organization'. This particular formulation has so far been taken as a semantic camouflage crafted to deny aspiring political parties the right to equal treatment under the law.

If the PFDJ presents itself as a political organization, as opposed to a party, then it follows that candidate political forces are required to behave as political organizations instead of political parties. Whatever that means! The constitution does not outline the difference between the novel notion ‘multiple political organization' and the familiar concept ‘multi-party'.

Whatever the solution to this classical ‘Catch 22' puzzle, there remains the fact that the PFDJ has a nation-wide party register of card-carrying members. An organization that is established on the basis of card-carrying membership, a political document (the National Charter), an elected leadership, and a standing congress, cannot deny its party status without inviting the ridicule of the Eritrea people and the international community.

The second feature lies in the fact that the constitution is a curious mix of the presidential and prime ministerial systems. In a presidential system, presidential candidates present themselves and their programs to the people: the winner would then exercise his prerogative to form his administration outside the congress. In the prime ministerial system, however, it is the parties and their candidates that would compete for electoral victory: the prime minister would then constitute his cabinet from the parliamentary party. Whether intended or not the ‘curious mix', or the combined powers of the presidential and prime ministerial aspects of the Eritrea constitution, has features that encourage dictatorial powers by legitimate means.

Advocates of conventional wisdom wonder whether the constitution was written with a certain party and a certain candidate in mind. Taking the two features of the Eritrea constitution into consideration and the preponderance of the PFDJ in Eritrea politics, it can be reasonably surmised that aspiring political parties do not have the time, the funds, and the access to the mass media to be able to compete with the PFDJ. A party with the above-mentioned advantages may already be declared the winner before the race starts!



The first question that needs to be addressed is: can the democratic process wait for the war to be terminated? Viewed from the strategic vantage point, it can be safely assumed that belligerent relations between the two neighbors might not end swiftly. Secondly, constitutional power provides greater flexibility in the conduct of both war and peace. Moreover, from the international point of view, Eritrean sovereignty can be favorably profiled, and humanitarian aid far more easily mobilized, if a serious effort towards establishing constitutional and democratic governance is made.

As pointed above, there are major obstacles to the urgent task of establishing a constitutional government based on multi-party competition. The first is that the constitution does not provide for multi-parties but for multiple organizations. Secondly, it would make a mockery of democracy to attempt to challenge the PFDJ under the present conditions. Thirdly, it would take at least a year for candidate parties to set-up the bare skeletons of political infrastructures that are capable of launching competing national parties. The question is: how can the problems outlined above be surmounted so that the foundations of a constitutional and democratic system are laid without delay?


(1) There should be parliamentary elections of independent candidates (who may or may not belong to this or the other political organization), at three levels, conducted simultaneously: the Adis/Ad (village communities), provincial, and national levels. The Adi is the very source of Eritrean citizenship, property ownership, and individual rights; as such, it is the very source of Eritrean identity and traditional democracy.

(2) There should be parliamentary elections of independents at the provincial level because they (provinces) represent Eritrean cultural diversity while remaining the sources of Eritrean nationalism. Democracy at the Adi and at the provincial levels has the advantages of decentralization, and putting administration and development in the hands of the local population, away from government administrators.

(3) There should be a national parliament of independents so that the political power that grew out of the barrel of the gun during the armed struggle is returned to its rightful owners; namely, the Eritrean people. Another advantage is that political parties would grow from the national parliament of independents rather than from political organizations that grew out the armed struggle. The most difficult armed confrontations (during the struggle for independence) occurred between Eritrean political organizations and not Eritrean tribes or ethnic groups.

(4) The constituency principle should take into consideration the democratic fact that: a) in addition to other qualification for candidacy, residence is the most important. Candidates at the Adi and provincial levels must produce evidence of residence of at least two years, b) Eritreans in Diaspora should have a certain percentage of the parliamentary seats, and c) at the Adi (only at the Adi) level to elect candidates on the basis of Adi origin.

(5) The parliament of independents shall be elected for a period of two years in order to perform specific tasks: a) to amend the Eritrea constitution in the spirit of Eritrean sovereignty, national unity, and democracy, b) to legislate the fundamental body of laws, and c) to lay the ground for a democratic multi-party system.

(6) The presidency should be open to candidates who satisfy the conditions of Eritrean citizenship and loyalty to nation and people.

(7) The establishment of an election commission (that is not dominated by the PFDJ) and an election court are essential.



The programmatic methodology outlined above has been selected in order to concentrate on central issues, highlight specific characteristics of democracy as related to Eritrea, and to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of laying the building blocks of democracy.

A Parliament of Independents

We have already considered the constitutional, political, and purely technical difficulties that stand on the path of establishing constitutional democracy. As described above, a parliament composed of competing political parties is inconceivable as things stand today. Furthermore, the political organizations that exist today have been created during the armed struggle with programmers directed towards liberation, where the linkage of the gun with independence was self-evident.

The primary point on the agenda, today, is to ensure that power grows out of the will of the people. Even if it is argued that the various organizations that style themselves as ‘opposition forces' ought to compete in parliamentary elections, the political and technical hurdles described above would make a farce of the attempt. A parliamentary election of independents has the advantage of being open to all Eritreans, whatever their political persuasion (and as long as they satisfy the conditions of electoral rules).


An Independent Parliament

A parliament of independents is also an independent parliament. Such a parliament would not be a quota parliament of ex-fighters, or women (also ex-fighters, but of individual Eritreans (whether ex-fighters or not) on their merits. An independent parliament has the right to amend or add (supplementary documents) to the constitution, and to legislate or reverse already existing legislation.

Of equal significance, out of an independent parliament of independents there shall emerge the political parties of the future: born from the battle of issues. The advantages of having simultaneous elections at three levels, the Adi principle, and a separate election for the presidency are issues that do not require elaboration at this stage.




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