Thursday, June 09, 2005

Protesters in Addis Ababa Test 'Visionary' Leader's Democratic Credentials

Ethiopian security forces clashed with protesters yesterday during a third day of election-related unrest in Addis Ababa, leaving up to 22 people dead and scores injured.

The violence highlights growing tensions in the nation and the volatile situation that has emerged since millions of Ethiopians voted on May 15.

The ballot was initially described as the country's most open, adding credibility to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's claims to be a democratic reformer. But after it emerged that unprecedented numbers of votes went to the opposition, the process has been marred by allegations of widespread irregularities.

The true test of Mr Meles's democratic values will now be how he deals with the situation emerging in a country of 70m where the gun has often been the determining factor.

The signs seem ominous. The protests surfaced despite an announcement by Mr Meles immediately after voting that demonstrations in the capital were banned.

Provisional results give the ruling party a majority in the 547-member parliament. But the opposition made massive gains, winning more than 180 of the 517 seats where results have been declared. They had just a dozen before.

Opposition politicians are also disputing more than 200 results. The release of official results has been delayed for a month.

The shift in the political landscape would have come as a shock for Mr Meles, a man lauded by western diplomats as a highly intelligent "visionary thinker".

Most observers agree the results reflect dissatisfaction with Mr Meles and his ruling party rather than support for the untested opposition.

Since his Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) seized power in 1991, Mr Meles has been the country's undisputed leader, the man who has driven policy and travelled the world selling his vision. He has charmed donors and foreign governments and was one of two African leaders appointed to the UK's Commission for Africa.

Yet to many, Mr Meles's government fails in key areas the commission seeks to espouse - good governance and economic development. According to a US State Department report, the government's human rights record remains poor, with allegations of unlawful killings and "limited freedom of association".

The economic outlook is also far from rosy, with complaints that reform has been too slow and that there are excessive state controls.

In many ways the dichot omy between the government's unpopularity at home and the esteem in which Mr Meles is held in the international community can be explained by the ambiguities surrounding the 50-year-old.

In the mid-1970s, when he and other university students left the capital for life as guerrilla fighters, Mr Meles was brimming with Marxist-Leninist ideologies.

Almost up to the point that his Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) - which forms the core of the EPRDF - seized power, Mr Meles and others reportedly called for Albanian-style socialism. But as the guerrillas marched on Addis Ababa they realised they were entering an altered world; communism was collapsing and Marxists had few allies.

The EPRDF indicated it would embrace free-market policies and democratise the nation. But analysts and former rebels say "Marxist baggage" continues to influence the prime minister.

"Meles is a capitalist on the outside, a Marxist on the inside, which is why they are in a state of disarray," says one analyst. Former TPLF members concur. When Mr Meles promoted his idea of revolutionary democracy, "I never understood it myself, even though I was in the party," says one.

The elections were perhaps an insight into Mr Meles's thinking. Some say he allowed the European Union and Carter Centre to monitor the vote in a bid to replenish his world image following "nagging" about Ethiopia's refusal to accept an international ruling on its disputed border with Eritrea, but miscalculated the party's unpopularity.

"He underestimated that people have been suppressed for 14 years," says one diplomat. "Suddenly the cork was taken out of the bottle with the presence of the observers."

Former TPLF members say he relied too heavily on cadres to gauge opinion, arguing the party was weakened by a split in 2001. That occurred largely because of his leadership of the border war with Eritrea when he resisted calls to take the Eritrean port of Assab, which many Ethiopians deem a huge error for landlocked Ethiopia.

The split was the most serious challenge to Mr Meles and a dozen senior party members were dismissed, removing internal threats to his leadership.

But while his position was reinforced, former TPLF members say he is alienated from the people.

"As a person he is very clever, but as a leader how can you be clever if you do not see what is going on?" says Amare Aregawi, an editor and former TPLF member.

Financial Times

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