Ethiopia heads to the polls

By Hannah Gilkes

Posted on Friday, 21 May 2010 11:22

In the Know features an interview, opinion or analysis on the events making the news in Africa each week.

With some of its leaders in prison, a divided opposition stands little chance of unseating Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia’s 23 May polls

Ethiopia heads to the polls on Sunday 23 May and recent events have caused a shift in the mood. The election process was marked by considerable apathy, particularly in Addis Ababa, but also in the regions. Finally, three months of half-hearted sniping between government and the opposition parties and six uninspiring rounds of political debate gave way to a week or two of campaigning in earnest. There have been clashes in the regions with several deaths reported, but none of that is likely to stop the incumbent party from winning another election.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which includes regional parties in the Amhara, Oromo and Southern regions, are not universally popular. Nor are they as widely disliked as the opposition claims. This ambivalence is coupled with the fact that a disorganised and diverse opposition has not offered a viable alternative to the EPRDF. In 2005, the opposition won 172 seats out of 547 and it is unlikely to win many more this time.

The EPRDF, with some 4 million members, is organised down to the lowest levels of administration and has the ability to raise extensive funds from the business community. The opposition’s progress has been affected by structural and ideological fragmentation, as well as the government’s penchant for imprisoning its opponents. There are some 49 opposition parties, which necessarily diffuses support. The largest group is Medrek, made up of eight different parties most of which have different political and ideological agendas. It is unified by its opposition to the EPRDF and much little else. Medrek’s internal differences have meant that it has been unable to provide many policy alternatives to the government’s programmes.

On the campaign trail, the government points to the development of infrastructure projects, seven years of double-digit growth and the control of inflation. The opposition blames the government for standing in the way of its efforts to form a cohesive unit. The government says it cannot be blamed for the opposition’s inadequacies. How the electorate regard this particular point will be a key issue in determining whether this election is headed towards the violence that marked the 2005 polls.

The EPRDF’s behaviour towards the opposition and its lack of tolerance for political pluralism has caused some embarrassment to international supporters of Meles’s government. The continued imprisonment of Unity for Democracy and Justice leader Birtukan Mideksa – who was taken into custody following the 2005 election, pardoned in 2007 and then rearrested – has caused outrage among human-rights groups. Her position as the mother of a young child has caught the imagination of the government’s opponents. The intimidation and harassment of the opposition have grabbed the attention of international press and human-rights organisations.

International observers have been sent from the European Union (EU) and the African Union (AU). They have received a mixed reception from both the government and the opposition. The government made it clear that it does not want a repeat of what happened in 2005, when it criticised the head of the EU mission for a lack of neutrality. Beyene Petros, the current chair of Medrek, has expressed concern about the presence of observers from the AU, claiming that they will not be fair and balanced.

Should the government be successful, as is expected, Meles would begin his third successive term as prime minister. Last year he said he wanted to retire, but left the final decision to the EPRDF’s central committee, which decided he should stay for one more term. Other senior officials will retire over the next couple of years, some 18 years after the EPRDF was established.

International opinion about this year’s polls is important to the government. Ethiopia has become a firm military ally to the United States in the Horn of Africa and highlights its image as a stable country in a volatile region, attracting $3.3bn in development aid in 2008. Meles has represented the continent in climate change talks and in the G-20. His image would be tarnished if observers express concerns about the fairness of the vote or if the polls lead to large-scale opposition protests.

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