Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Ethiopians to vote in May

The ruling coalition in Addis Ababa will soon face what could be the most concerted effort yet to roll back its dominance in Ethiopian politics, writes Salah Khalil

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the governing coalition that has won the past four elections, is preparing to face an organised challenge from a determined opposition come elections in May 2015.

An uneasy sense of anticipation has descended upon the country amid growing concern over the government’s suppression of the opposition and a clampdown on public freedoms. With some opposition members languishing in prison and others placed under travel restrictions, the opposition is trying to close its ranks to make a credible challenge to EPRDF rule.

Despite its political heavy-handedness, the EPRDF does not lack popular support. Many Ethiopians, especially in the countryside, are willing to endorse a government that brought them double-digit growth and created a workable system of autonomy for the country’s various ethnic communities.

Ethiopia’s constitution of 1994, which the opposition claims it wasn’t consulted on, enshrines the separation of church and state and gives a level of autonomy to the country’s nine regions, within a federal system that recognises the cultural integrity of each ethnic community without compromising the unity of the country as a whole.

Political opposition parties objected to the constitution, mainly because their opinions were not sought by its authors. But the ruling EPRDF was able to push it through with relative ease.

The constitution declares the country a parliamentary democracy in a federal framework involving the creation of nine regions along ethnic and linguistic lines: Tigray; Afar; Amhara, Benishangul; Gambella; the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), Oromia; Harari; and Somali.

The EPRDF won the elections in 1995, 2005, 2000 and 2010 with a comfortable majority, and is in command of federal and regional legislatures. The 2015 elections are likely to see the opposition mount a coordinated challenge to the EPRDF, which it claims has tipped the balance in its favour during previous elections through a blend of intimidation and fraud.

The Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), a key group of opposition figures, has been in touch with a like-minded party, seeking to form a united front against the ruling coalition. In 1995, opposition parties boycotted the elections in protest against a constitution that was written without their participation or approval.

In 2000, the opposition claimed that the polls were rigged, as its candidates won only 12 seats of the 547-member parliament. The 2005 elections were marred by violence, with 200 people killed, but were considered relatively free and fair. The government then arrested 200 activists who had accused it of tampering with the vote. The EPRDF won 370 seats, leaving 177 to the opposition in polls that saw a record 90 per cent turnout.

The 2010 elections were even more controversial, with opposition parties winning in most urban centres and claiming that the EPRDF rigged votes in the countryside. The opposition won 210 seats, but the EPRDF managed to keep its parliamentary majority. As soon as the results were announced, the opposition accused the ruling coalition of vote rigging and opposition members clashed with the police in demonstrations that followed.

Ethiopia’s economic growth rate, which exceeded 10 per cent in recent years, is among the highest in Africa. The EPRDF is expected to remind voters of the political and economic stability it claims to have brought to the country.

Leading the challenge to the government in the next elections will be the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, Oromo Federalist Congress, All Ethiopian Unity Party, and Semayawi (Blue) Party.

Powerful opposition figures are also rallying public opinion as part of their challenge to the government. Among these are Merera Gudina, a political science professor at Addis Ababa University and chief of the Forum for Democratic Dialogue in Ethiopia (MEDREK), and Birtukan Mideska, a rights activist.

In their campaign, opposition parties are expected to stress the need for freedom of expression, transparency, accountability, police neutrality and access to information. The opposition is also demanding legal reform, removal of restrictions on the media and civil society and the release of imprisoned activists, journalists and political detainees.

Bickering among opposition leaders may, however, undermine their cause. The Ethiopian government, eager to deflect local and international criticism, has refrained from cracking down on recent demonstrations.

More than 34 million eligible voters will choose from 75 parties expected to field candidates in the upcoming elections. Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has promised to conduct fair, free and transparent elections.

Mushe Semu, of the Ethiopian Democratic Party, urged all political parties and civil society groups to turn the elections into an occasion to end hate and restore tolerance and mutual respect to the country’s politics. Earlier, the opposition and the ruling coalition agreed on a code of honour. At least 20 per cent of the seats are reserved for women, in a bid to energise their political role.

The EPRDF has been holding talks with various political pressure groups in the country, including the Ogadine National Liberation Front, Ethiopian People’s Patriotic Front, and Oromo Liberation Front, in a bid to defuse tensions ahead of the elections.

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