In the wake of Ethiopia’s post-election protests in which more than 80 people were killed, Zerihun Taddesse revisits the events of the past couple of months and explains how an emboldened opposition sent the ruling party into panic by the level of support it garnered at the May polls.
Daily Nation -- Elections in Ethiopia have never been more than mere propaganda stunts directed by the incumbents and choreographed to give them a sense of legitimacy that their blood-spattered ascent to power had never been able to provide them with. Last May’s elections were not expected to be any different.
But the May polls surprised everybody by being the first ever genuinely contested elections in Ethiopia’s history.
What led to this sudden transformation of a hitherto pliant tool of the rulers into a genuine expression of the will of the people?
There are two theories why this happened. One school of thought argues that the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four former rebel groups organised along ethnic lines, which has been in power for the past 14 years, was forced to be more democratic by constant pressure from the donor community.
A number of facts support this ‘theory of window dressing.’ Pressure from donors For one, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and colleagues are running an economy heavily dependent on foreign aid with more than a billion dollars a year going into its coffers. Also, to make the May elections more open and democratic, an office was established within what is called the Donors Ambassadors’ Group (DAG), led by the Irish Embassy, which was entrusted with the task of providing support to opposition parties and to the National Election Board.
The DAG created a fund that was put under the British-based Electoral Reform International Services (ERIS) which distributed money pooled by various donors to the election board, the opposition parties and independent candidates under the supervision of the UNDP country office. The way in which this organisation tried to dictate the conduct of the election in the last hours to the poll seems to support this argument.
More importantly, however, the government’s willingness to invite international observers to monitor the election was cited as a clear indication of its eagerness to please the donors.
The second theory is that the ruling party miscalculated on the amount of genuine popular support that it had.
Those who espouse this theory of calculated risk cite Meles’s penchant for taking what he views as calculated risks.
Meles himself gave this view some credence when in August he told the BBC that he and his government “took a calculated risk from the very beginning.”
He was speaking here of his decision to allow the opposition to take part in the election even though he said he knew all too well their intention of wresting power through “undemocratic” street action.
Never afraid of taking risks, however, this is not the only risk that he took. As well as consenting to demands for international observers, he was also supremely confident that his rule had the necessary popular support that he gave the opposition parties widespread access to the broadcast media and allowed them to campaign comparatively freely.
His party even engaged the opposition in a series of public debates. These and other actions of the government gave the opposition parties an unprecedented degree of visibility that proved crucial in improving their chances of an election victory.
What’s more, they also ensured that the majority of the people were gradually drawn into the national politics and served to transform the hitherto politics shy population of 74.2 million into a highly engaged one determined to express its will through the ballot box.
Hence, the record voter turn-out that is officially put at more than 90 per cent.
The ruling party was not, however, the only one that played the crucial part in making the May elections genuinely contested.
The opposition parties were also paramount players. In an authoritarian culture where dissent and opposition entails violence, Ethiopian opposition parties have found it always difficult to survive, let alone be viable alternatives to the ruling party. In addition, for all its desire to appear democratic, EPRDF has for the past 14 years pursued policies that were intended to weaken opposition parties and limit their actions.
Opposition parties have therefore never been able to develop a genuine support base and are still largely far removed from the day-to-day life of the population.
There are, however, signs of this changing with parties like the All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP) and the Ethiopian Democratic Union Party (EDUP) doing a lot of grassroots work in many rural and urban
Opposition parties have also had to contend with the perceived diffuse nature of their ideological orientations. This might have been either because they lacked proper exposure to the people due to the various discouraging tactics used by the government or simply because they did not have well worked out and accessible programmes.
But all this changed around the end of 2004 when a new political party named Rainbow Ethiopia: Movement for Democracy and Social Justice came into being with a largely intellectual membership. The impact of its introduction was to bring about a clarity of ideological differences and alliances that was to prove crucial in the subsequent conduct of the elections.
Rainbow opposition coalition For one, Rainbow’s leaders managed to bring a number of nationalist parties together to form the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), chaired by civil engineer Hailu Shawil, and present a consolidated opposition whose ideology is in direct conflict with the ruling party’s.
Through eloquent articulation of their viewpoints, the CUD has helped to reinvigorate the entire opposition camp. The other opposition coalition, the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF), led by Addis Ababa University professor Marara Gudina and opposition MP Dr Beyene Petros, was also given a new lease of life and was able pose a real threat to the two parties that have traditionally dominated the county’s two largest regions — Oromia and the South regions — the Oromo National Congress (ONC) and the Southern Ethiopia People's Democratic Coalition, respectively.
The cumulative effect of all this was the extraordinary enthusiasm with which the people of Ethiopia expressed their will through the ballot. Meles' EPRDF won a majority in the disputed polls, but the opposition gained many seats — from only 12 in the last parliament to 174 out of 547 seats Ethiopians were infused with a sense of eagerness, and it was not only in Addis Ababa that this was happening.
Foreigners and nationals alike were amazed by the amount of political activism that was taking place through-out Ethiopia. Upon her return to Addis from a remote area in north western Ethiopia, the head of the European Union observation mission, Ana Gomes, told of how a group of young shepherds flashed the victory sign to her in greeting.
Ms Gomes, however, came with a foreboding that while the peoples’ expectations were so high, they were bound to be disappointed by the election outcome.
This was reinforced when with only a week to go before polling day, Addis Ababa saw two large rallies in support of EPRDF and CUD. Attended by an estimated one million people, EPRDF’s rally on May 7 prompted Prime Minister Meles to declare to the world that “this tide does not need to rig to win the election.” But the next day, however, most of the same people and more — estimated to be about two million — came out in support of the CUD.
The joke in Addis since has been that EPRDF’s “tide” was crushed by CUD’s “tsunami.” The trend was repeated in other parts of the country. For once, the rulers of Ethiopia were caught with their guard down and, unfortunately for them, the people were ready to exploit that situation to their advantage.
And the leaders of EPRDF seemed to be the last to realise this. So they resorted to all sorts of unseemly actions in a frantic lastminute bid to change the outcome of the elections, which by then was abundantly clear would not favour them.
Threats and promises Meles, Arkebe Ouqbai, the then provisional mayor of Addis, and other leaders held frantic meetings with people from various sectors of the society to persuade them, with a mixture of threats and promises, to support the ruling party.
The mayor even violated the deadline for campaigning when he gathered disaffected Addis taxi drivers on the last Friday before the election and tried to wheedle their allegiance.
On the evening of the Election Day, which was described by Ms Gomes as going quite peacefully and without major disturbances, Meles declared a de facto state of emergency in Addis Ababa that outlawed demonstrations and public gatherings for a month. Voting was not concluded in many polling stations as a result. And it came as no surprise when reports of ballot-stuffing and undue delay in counting began to reach the capital from many parts of the country.
For two weeks, the process was in such a mess that Ms Gomes could not help but declare that the election board had lost control of the counting and serious irregularities were taking place. The government, in the meantime, denied the opposition access to the broadcast media and began to use the media under its control to discredit and vilify them.
The tension that ensued following the increased polarisation between the two camps and widespread agitation among the people culminated in the killing of more than 42 people when the security forces broke up a demonstration by university students, who were joined by the public, protesting the rigging of the election.
The tension was somewhat eased, albeit temporarily, when the European Commission ambassador appeared to have mediated a peace pact between the parties two days later. The agreement showed the parties to have come to a consensus on a general framework that would govern the handling and investigation of complaints as well as the conduct
Though it was a major diplomatic achievement, the agreement failed to consider the necessity of changing the context in which these activities were to be conducted.
By then, opposition leaders were complaining that thousands of their supporters had been thrown into jail. The movement of the leaders themselves was being restricted and they were put under close surveillance by security agents.
TV and radio, under the sole control of the government, were spewing out hate propaganda targeting the opposition parties and their leaders. Heavily armed police and the army were deployed in towns and other settlements. Any investigation or re-runs that takes place under these and other intimidating circumstances, the opposition argued, could not possibly be impartial and just.
For all its failure, however, the diplomatic intervention opened a respectable corridor of interaction for the parties, and the dialogue continued on other issues, and was to culminate in a face-to face meeting of CUD and UEDF leaders with Mr Zenawi. But in the end it was largely ineffective and was rudely abandoned by the government when it learned of the contents of a report by the EU election observation mission that was soon to be released.
The mission’s preliminary report concluded that “despite significant efforts by the election administration to establish a complex system to deal with complaints, overall the process failed to provide an effective remedy to parties.” It added that “re-runs of elections went peacefully and orderly, albeit without opposition representation and with militia and security forces present around and inside poling stations of some sensitive constituencies.”
In addition, Ms Gomes, who is a member of the European Parliament, recounted detailed cases of irregularities that she said occurred during the post-election period, concluding that the conduct of the election was therefore far below the international standard.
EPRDF responded viciously to this bombshell. Its first reaction was to question the impartiality of Ms Gomes and the EC ambassador who just a month earlier had been a respected mediator between the parties. A government daily even published an article alleging that the two were recipients of CUD favours.
And in an uncharacteristic move, the Prime Minister, too, wrote a three-part Letter to the Editor in the same newspaper accusing Ms Gomes of bias and ill judgement.
The newly-elected parliament has started meeting — without CUD MPs — and a new government has been constituted.
The same faces have reappeared again as the rulers of Ethiopia with Meles Zenawi with a record 14 years at the helm, and counting, leading the pack. As for the opposition, 46 more of their supporters, mostly teenagers and old people, were killed in renewed protests early this month, and almost all the leaders are now behind bars, and could face treason charges. Seven months after the elections, the people remain as agitated as ever.
Zerihun Taddesse is an Ethiopian freelance journalist. Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network.