Ethiopia: Selling Prosperity Party to the Oromo is Abiy’s greatest challenge

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi

Posted on Friday, 6 December 2019 13:24
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has coined a watchword, 'Medemer', to unite people around his new party. Michel Euler/Pool via REUTERS

As elections draw near, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s new Prosperity Party makes significant progress, but his political rebranding exercise is under time pressure.

As Ethiopia gears up for its May 2020 elections, three of the four members of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition have voted to join the Prosperity Party (PP), Abiy Ahmed’s new political formation.

  • Five regional parties, from Afar, Gambella, Harari, Benishangul Gumz and Somali regions have also joined the party.

The lone holdout in the ruling party is the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which has seen its power wane under Abiy’s rule.

  • “The move to disband the EPRDF weakens the federal system and takes away the rights of the people to self-administration,” Debretsion Gebremichael, chair of the TPLF, said at a news conference. “The drive to form a united party does not consider the existing situations in the country.”

The PP marks the end of the EPRDF as an alliance of four parties, nearly three decades after it came to power.

While the TPLF’s opposition to the merger was expected, Abiy’s new party has also been criticised by some of his allies and core supporters.

  • The most prominent of them, defence minister Lemma Megersa, told VOA’s Afaan Oromo Service: “Merging this party is not timely as there are many dangers. We are in transition.”
  • “Until they tell me to leave the organisation I will struggle holding on to the difference I have. It is not just me, there are many who have misgivings about this and are willing to struggle for it,” he said.

Oromo doubts

While Lemma’s comments have received the most attention, his opposition to the plan may point to the fact that Abiy’s biggest challenge will be how to sell the new party to the Oromo.

Lemma’s criticism is significant for the future, as he is also the deputy chairman of the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), Abiy’s current party.

The minister, whose resignation as chair of the then OPDO cleared the route for Abiy to become prime minister, also said he does not subscribe to Abiy’s ‘Medemer’ philosophy.

While there are obvious advantages to joining the national formation, constituent parties are also worried about the effect it will have on their home fronts.

Too soon?

Other critics are worried about the timing, too.

“One of the most immediate challenges to PP is that it will be difficult to win a free and competitive election as a pan-Ethiopian party while ethnicity remains the predominant political cleavage,” argues Awol K Allo.

  • He also says that, for some in Ethiopia, “the fusion of the distinct entities that represented the various ethnic groups marks a return to Ethiopia’s centralising and homogenising past.”

Plans for an EPRDF merger have been in the works since 2008, but they gained momentum as part of Prime Minister Abiy’s political reforms.

  • The reforms, which have included releasing political detainees and removing parties from terror lists, have resulted in an exponential growth in the number of recognised parties.
  • In November, the Sidama people voted to form their own state, which will further increase the number of political players in the country.

While launching the new party on 1 December, Abiy said that it had “prepared [a] clear programme and bylaws as well as a 10-year plan that leads Ethiopia to prosperity”.

With just five months to the polls, the party will have to depend on the legacy of its predecessor, while also trying to distance itself from it.

“The EPRDF party brand has collapsed,” Girmachew Alemu, an associate professor at Addis Abeba University, recently wrote in the Addis Standard: “Paradoxically, the strength and weakness of the Prosperity Party is closely linked with the legacy of the EPRDF.”

The Prosperity Party draws strength from its inheritance of, among others, the financial and human resources, mass networks, and political, economic, and social achievements of the EPRDF.

But this inheritance will also include all of EPRDF’s “authoritarian baggage”, and the new party will have to find a way to do things differently.

Bottom line:

Abiy’s extensive reforms will provide a foundation for the Prosperity Party’s brand. But it will still have to compete with regional parties on their home turf, and navigate multiple issues including ethnicity and the politics of federalism.

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