Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Ethiopia Opposition Faces Uphill Task in Polls

Lacking money, grassroots organisation and a charismatic figurehead, Ethiopia's opposition faces an uphill task in contesting general elections on Sunday.

Sitting in a sparsely-furnished office in Addis Ababa, opposition campaign director Berhanu Nega has the tough task of trying to unseat a dominant ruling party that shot its way to power in 1991 and ended 17 years of brutal Marxist dictatorship.

Despite mounting its strongest challenge yet, the opposition is still expected to lose the May 15 contest to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and its well-oiled electoral machine.

Bereft of experience at the polls and subject to what they call harassment by ruling party cadres, opposition candidates have yet to mobilise grassroots support in rural areas, which is critical to their success, diplomats and analysts say.

The EPRDF denies intimidating opponents.

Nor does the opposition have a clear leading personality to challenge former guerrilla chief Meles, whose tough stump speeches have compared the opposition to Rwanda's ethnic Hutu Interahamwe militias and raised the spectre of ethnic bloodshed.

However, observers say the elections - Ethiopia's second real multi-party vote in its 3,000 year history - have been more competitive than previous polls in 1995 and 2000 won solidly by the EPRDF. The opposition boycotted the 1995 polls in protest at what they called unfair curbs on campaigning.

This time around the EPRDF has allowed political opponents access to state-controlled media and its members have participated in televised debates.

Ethiopians in the capital Addis Ababa where opposition support is most visible say they are more free to voice dissent.

"People are saying what's in their hearts and expressing themselves," said student Eyerusalem, 28.

"There has never been an election like this before."

Unlike previous years, opposition parties have set aside their ethnic differences to form two coalitions, pledging to unite if it means winning a parliamentary majority.

"There aren't fundamental ideological differences (between opposition groups), the name of the game is capitalism now," said Berhanu, of the Coalition of Unity and Democracy.

"It's the first election that has genuinely scared the government," he told Reuters, as footage of hundreds of thousands of people at last week's opposition rally played.

The opposition wants to fight poverty by ending the state's ownership of all land, arguing that farmers must be free to buy and sell property and develop wealth.

They say the present system gives little incentive to the farmer to invest in land leased to him by the government.


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