Freedom House | Ethiopia is not a liberal democracy – Duh!

Freedom House published its annual survey of ‘freedom’ and ‘electoral democracy’ this month. The report, titled Freedom in the World 2011: The Authoritarian Challenge to Democracy, covers 194 countries and another 14 ‘territories’ – two ‘related territories’ (Hong Kong & Puerto Rico) and twelve ‘disputed territories’ (such as Somaliland, Tibet and the same). Freedom House is a US-based institution founded about half a century ago (65?) and it started publishing such reports in 1973, though the methodology has underwent several been revised several times.

The 2011 report characterized 87 countries as ‘free’, 64 as ‘partly free’ and 47 as ‘not free’. With regard to the 14 ‘territories’, two were considered ‘free’, four ‘partly free’ and eight ‘not free’. Of all the countries and territories assessed, the report labeled only 115 countries an ‘electoral democracy.’

Among the countries and territories in the Horn of Africa, the report characterized Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, and Somaliland as ‘partly free’, while Djibouti, Ethiopia and Rwanda as ‘not free’. The rest three states in the region, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia are considered the ‘worst of the worst’ on a par with Burma, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The report describes the three ‘worst of the worst’ that belong to the Horn saying ‘Sudan is ruled by a leadership that has elements of both radical Islamism and a traditional military junta; Eritrea, an increasingly repressive police state; and Somalia, a failed state.’

Moreover, the report deems none of the states in the Horn of Africa an ‘electoral democracy’.

The report explains Ethiopia’s score as follows:

Ethiopia’s political rights rating declined from 5 to 6, its civil liberties rating from 5 to 6, and its status from Partly Free to Not Free due to national elections that were thoroughly tainted by intimidation of opposition supporters and candidates as well as a clampdown on independent media and nongovernmental organizations.

Logically two questions come to mind: what does it really measure? Then is Ethiopia’s score is undeserved?

What Does It Really Measure?

Freedom House claims not to have ‘a culture-bound view of freedom’ and that the survey is grounded ‘in basic standards of political rights and civil liberties, derived in large measure from relevant portions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These standards apply to all countries and territories, irrespective of geographical location, ethnic or religious composition, or level of economic development’.

Freedom House stated further, in the report, that:

The survey does not rate governments or government performance per se, but rather the real-world rights and freedoms enjoyed by individuals. Freedoms can be affected by state actions, as well as by non-state actors, including insurgents and other armed groups. Thus, the survey ratings generally reflect the interplay of a variety of actors, both governmental and nongovernmental.

Yet, Freedom House admits that the countries labeled as ‘free’ are those that qualifies as a ‘liberal democracy’, on the explanatory notes provided by its Research Director.

It should be noted that democracy and Liberal democracy are not synonymous, as the later goes beyond the minimal democratic principle of ‘majority rule and minority respected’ and attaches ‘a particular catalogue of social, political, economic, and religious rights’ into the concept of democracy.

Indeed, the survey is often criticized as too rightist, due to its inclination to classical liberal notions. Moreover, Freedom House is perceived as a pro-Republican institution, though its founders Eleanor Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie was from Democratic and Republican Party, respectively.

When is a country ‘free’ or a ‘liberal democracy’?: Freedom House characterizes countries as ‘free’, ‘partly free’, and ‘not free’ based on the simple average of their ratings in ‘Political rights’ and ‘Civil liberties’.

First, each country would be assessed by a two-category checklist: The political rights checklist consisting 10 questions and civil liberties checklist of 15 questions. Each question is marked out of 4, with 0 representing the smallest degree and 4 the greatest degree of freedom. Thus, an ideal freest country would score 40 points in the political rights category and 60 points in the ‘civil liberties’ category.[See the check list below]

Then, the scores in each categories, the status of political rights and civil liberties in a country will be rated on a scale of 1 to 7. A country that scored 36-40 in the political rights checklist would be rated ‘1’ for that category, while scoring 53-60 in civil liberties checklist would be needed to be rated ‘1’ in that category.

Finally, the combined average ratings of the two categories will determine the overall status: Free (1.0 to 2.5), Partly Free (3.0 to 5.0), or Not Free (5.5 to 7.0).’

Though Freedom House claims that the survey is a result of a multilayered process of analysis and inputs from a range of ‘consultant regional experts and scholars’, it falls short of disclosing its methodology in the fullest. Not least, there are questions concerning the size and quality of the input data, which in turn determines the confidence level, and ensuring consistency in scoring among different staff members and across time, given the subjective nature of the checklist and most of the inputs used.

Moreover, many writers question the wisdom of the equal value assigned to all the questions and the equal weighting of the political rights and civil liberties category to determine the overall status. Moreover, the cutoff points between the three groupings (free, not free, and partly free) are said to have been established entirely arbitrarily.

Rating ‘Political rights’ and ‘electoral democracy’: Freedom House designates countries as ‘electoral democracy’ using their score in the political rights checklist. The scores of an ‘electoral democracy’ shall meet two numerical benchmarks on political rights checklist : First, its total score in the first three questions – Q. A1, A2, & A3, shall be 7 points or more (out of a possible 12) ; Second, its total score on the checklist shall be of 20 points or more (out of a possible 40).

The political rights checklist is more concerned with assessing institutional features of democracy rather than participativeness, responsiveness and public perception of its legitimacy, and similar features. Perhaps, that may be in part due to an ideological presupposition that representative democracy can deliver those features regardless of socio-economic differences across nations.

The report does also show an inclination to the old adage of ‘judging an elections by its results’ when one notes the questions ‘is the system open to the rise and fall of these
competing parties or groupings’, in Q. B1, and ‘Is there a significant opposition vote’, in Q. B2. However, the two countries that are ruled by one party for the last four decades, Botswana and Luxembourg, are considered not only ‘electoral democracies’ but also ‘free’ (liberal democracies), by the report.

Yet, the fact that the rating is determined by the outcome of elections (or issues of power transfer) is evident when one reads the explanatory notes for the countries whose ‘political rights’ ratings declined from the previous year.

Take the countries in the Horn of Africa whose ‘political rights’ ratting is said to have declined (or declining) from last year: Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Rwanda. Reason? The incumbent party won in the elections held in three of them. While Djibouti’s election is yet to be held in 2011, its ‘political rights’ rating declined due to the 2010 constitutional amendment that lifted the two term limit on the president. On the other hand, the political rights rating of Somaliland improved because of an election that transferred power to an opposition party. (As for the rest – though Sudan’s incumbent party won by the 2010 election, it already has the worst possible score, thus cannot decline further. While Uganda and Kenya’s election is scheduled for 2011 & 2012, respectively, Eritrea & Somalia never had one).

The election outcome based assessment is observable throughout the report. Indeed, the report explicitly states, in its explanatory notes, election outcome is the reason for the increase or decrease of the political rights ratings in two-third of the twenty-three countries whose ratings changed this year.

While judging an election by the results is a questionable way of measuring an election process, its merit as an indicator of the status of political democracy is even doubtful.

Moreover, though the use of a different numeric benchmark for measuring ‘electoral democracy’, as opposed to ‘liberal democracy’, was supposed to make the report value-neutral. The report’s presumption that the questions used for evaluating liberalness can also serve for assessing non-liberal forms of democracy, which are expected to score around midpoint, indicates the inherent bias towards western styled liberal form of democracy. The underlying assumption that liberalism is the highest form of political organization is unmistakable.

Rating civil liberties’: If the ‘political rights’ ratings show Freedom House actually measures Liberal democracy, then its ‘civil liberties’ ratings attest its Western liberal conception of rights.

Indeed, the measures used by Freedom House are found on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as it claims, but those are not all the rights listed thereon. The ‘civil liberties’ checklist, at least in 13 of the 15 questions, is concerned with ‘negative rights’ (freedom from); that is, prohibitions on the power of the state to restrain or dictate the actions of individuals.

The problem is that the ‘negative rights’ cannot be fully realized without the attainment of the enabling conditions. Those enabling conditions, also known as ‘positive rights’, are also listed on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – including right to education, right to a healthy life, equality of genders, right to social security, right to work. They are considered positive terms (“rights to”) because they require more the intervention than the abstention of the state for assuring the equitable production and distribution of the values or capabilities involved.

Apparently, Freedom House’s choosing to focus on ‘negative rights’ is resultant of its inclination towards the Anglo-American variant of liberal democracy that is largely based on classical liberal principles.

Ethiopia’s status

If ‘free’ means ‘liberal democracy’, in Freedom House’s dictionary, then it doesn’t surprise me that Ethiopia didn’t qualify. Last I checked, the ruling party believes Ethiopia is not ready for liberal democracy. In fact, I am not certain if it aspires to become one.

Setting aside the afore-mentioned issues regarding the method of the report, the basis for this year’s rating is unclear.

Admittedly, the margin of the ruling party’s win in the last May legislative elections is indicative of the need to reconsider the rules of the game. Nonetheless, that doesn’t automatically evidence, the elections were ‘tainted by intimidation of opposition supporters and candidates as well as a clampdown on independent media and nongovernmental organizations.’ This statement is not supported by the data comparing the pre-poll ‘politically motivated killings’ allegations of election 2005 and 2010, lest the election result by itself has been taken as an evidence of intimidation. Indeed, the statement concerning the polling day, issued four days later, by Medrek party, a coalition of 6 parties, lists only half a dozen concrete allegations – 2 bullet & 6 knife stabbings, no death – all in one zone of Oromia region.(to be posted soon)

Taking into consideration that Freedom House claims the ‘political rights’ and ‘civil liberties’ ratings reflect events from January 1, 2010, through December 31, 2010, it is unclear to which ‘clampdown on independent media and nongovernmental organizations’ it refers to. Note that all the laws that allegedly constrict the political space – the CSO law and the Anti-terrorism law – were enacted in 2009. The closure of AddisNeger newspaper, a case oft cited by rights groups, took place in 2009. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily evidence 2010 was a good year from NGOs and the press. Yet, if the ratings are to be meaningful, the decline in 2010 shouldn’t have been deemed as big as 2009.

In fact, I can’t help picturing a couple of white men in dark suit, on the other side of Atlantic, looking at the election results in disbelief and annoyance, declaring ‘no, no, this no liberal democracy – net even partly’.

The criticism thus far doesn’t mean that Ethiopia would have got a drastically different rating had it been conducted in a value-free manner.

Indeed, Ethiopia couldn’t have scored above average points in most, had I been in charge of the ratings. (Though, I would have included a couple of ‘positive rights’ in the checklist.)

This is a country where officials enjoy a disconcerting degree of impunity emboldened by the casualness of remedial actions.

Even in terms of religious freedom, where the government mostly follows a hands-off approach, Ethiopia’s rating wouldn’t be that high, if we are considering ‘the real-world rights and freedoms enjoyed by individuals’, given recurrent problems on its exercise at locality levels.

Thus, it is no wonder that the recent issue of Foreign Affairs Ministry, the A Week in the Horn lamented Freedom House’s report saying:

Its near-Manichaean characterization of countries as free, partially-free and not free is perhaps the most defining hallmark of its blanket generalizations about the complex interplay of economic, political and social factors.

without daring to list achievements, as it would have done had the case at hand been economic performance rather than individual liberties.

Though the statement, apparently as an excuse for the snail-paced improvements, makes a vague reference to ‘the complex interplay of economic, political and social factors’, I suspect such obfuscation coupled with indifference is rather the cause of inaction.


Freedom House: Freedom in the World 2011: The Authoritarian Challenge to Democracy

Political Rights and Civil Liberties Checklist Questions

1. Is the head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
2. Are the national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair?
1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system open to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
2. Is there a significant opposition vote and a realistic possibility for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, totalitarian parties, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group?
4. Do cultural, ethnic, religious, or other minority groups have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
2. Is the government free from pervasive corruption?
3. Is the government accountable to the electorate between elections, and does it operate with openness and transparency?
1. For traditional monarchies that have no parties or electoral process, does the system provide for genuine, meaningful consultation with the people, encourage public discussion of policy choices, and allow the right to petition the ruler?
2. Is the government or occupying power deliberately changing the ethnic composition of a country or territory so as to destroy a culture or tip the political balance in favor of another group?

1. Are there free and independent media and other forms of cultural expression? (Note: In cases where the media are state-controlled but offer pluralistic points of view, the survey gives the system credit.)
2. Are religious institutions and communities free to practice their faith and express themselves in public and private?
3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free of extensive political indoctrination?
4. Is there open and free private discussion?
1. Is there freedom of assembly, demonstration, and open public discussion?
2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations? (Note: This includes civic organizations, interest groups, foundations, etc.)
3. Are there free trade unions and peasant organizations or equivalents, and is there effective collective bargaining? Are there free professional and other private organizations?
1. Is there an independent judiciary?
2. Does the rule of law prevail in civil and criminal matters? Are police under direct civilian control?
3. Is there protection from political terror, unjustified imprisonment, exile, or torture, whether by groups that support or oppose the system? Is there freedom from war and insurgencies?
4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
1. Do citizens enjoy freedom of travel or choice of residence, employment, or institution of higher education?
2. Do citizens have the right to own property and establish private businesses? Is private business activity unduly influenced by government officials, the security forces, political parties/organizations, or organized crime?
3. Are there personal social freedoms, including gender equality, choice of marriage partners, and size of family?
4. Is there equality of opportunity and the absence of economic exploitation?

Daniel Berhane

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