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Ethiopia after its electoral drama: second “renewal” imminent ? – by René Lefort

Open Democracy
by René Lefort
Published on July 7, 2015

The history of this country is one of eternal recurrence. The ‘national question” re-emerges where it has always been, with varying degrees of visibility: at the heart of Ethiopian political life.

The so called “dominante party” steamroller has flattened everything in its way. The opposition held one seat in the outgoing parliament. It will not hold a single one in the parliament elected on May 24, 2015. And of the 1,987 seats in the regional parliaments, only three will have escaped the ruling party. In the light of these figures, the multi-party state that the regime claims to have established remains a distant mirage.

The first factor in this sweeping triumph is the first-past-the-post electoral system. Under a proportional system, with 9% of the votes, the opposition could have counted on some fifty MPs.

Vigorous economic growth also played a hefty role. Even if the official figures are exaggerated, annual growth has probably been running at around 6% to 7% for the last decade. The infrastructure boom is astonishing, as is the proliferation of schools and health centres, the widening of access to drinking water and, more generally, a net reduction in the percentage of people in poverty, although the number of those below the national poverty line remains stable, currently at around one quarter of the population.

Now with more than 7 million members, one in five Ethiopians aged between 20 and 65 is a member of the EPRDF. The so-called “one to five” system was created to build a “development army”. The idea is that each “model farmer” – obviously a party member – should bring five peasant neighbours in his wake. However, this “army” has also become a multi-tentacled tool to enlist and to control the whole population.

Finally, the opposition is virtually non-existent. The National Electoral Board, making sovereign decisions based on murky criteria, inter alia, about the eligibility of candidates, contributed to this, and even more so an increasingly constricted political sphere. However, the opposition is also a victim of its own divisions and the inconsistency of its programmes. This weakness arises, amongst other things, from the extreme difficulty of building a political force with the goal of acceding to power not through the gun but through the ballot box, when there is no evidence that the ruling power would accept the result, and in a country where power has historically always been acquired by force.

In consequence, these elections were – as expected – no more than a ritual performance and, as such, failed to play one of their essential roles: to bring to the fore during the campaign – explicitly and clearly – problems that have been becoming ever more acute, in particular since the death of the omnipotent Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 2012.

In the absence of a real opposition and a vigorous civil society, they can only be tackled within the de facto single party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The question is, does it want to and is it able to tackle them? Time presses. Each of the party’s four components – Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara National Democratic Mouvement (ANDM), Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SPDM) – will be holding their congresses in August, the EPRDF as a whole in September.

Sebhat Nega, patriarch of the TPLF since its foundation, no longer holds any official position within the Front. In reality, he continues to play a decisive role, along with a handful of former senior figures from the “old guard”. In spring of last year, after a trial of strength with the Front’s current leadership, which has changed since 2010, following a rejuvenation campaign decided by and begun under Meles Zenawi, this group was the first to sound the alarm after visiting Tigray to hear what the people had to say. With a frankness that he is one of the few to allow himself to express, he delivers his assessment: “the people is not satisfied, it has a lot of grievances.”[1] Sebhat begins by identifying three: “corruption, bad governance and lack of accountability.” These may be the headline criticisms, but the censure goes much further.

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