By Teshome Borago
January 17, 2021
Despite some obstacles to campaigning, Ethiopia’s largest opposition party EZEMA is preparing for the historic election scheduled for June 2021.
The Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (ECFSJ) party, known by its Amharic acronym EZeMa, announced on Sunday that it will compete in 435 out of 547 election districts. The party needs 274 seats to form a new federal government, though it is also competing in regional elections in an attempt to takeover state governments or administer the two charter cities of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa.
Ezema was formed in 2019 from the merger of half a dozen opposition parties. Many of these organizations now making up Ezema were, in previous years, the leading opposition parties challenging the EPRDF ruling party which has now changed its name to Prosperity Party (PP).
In the election of 2005, considered to be the most competitive in Ethiopian history, the opposition parties now making up Ezema won the polls in Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa and some districts in the Amhara, South and Oromia regions where international observers were present.
However, the previous TPLF leaders of the then EPRDF ruling party suddenly declared state of emergency in June 2005, reversing most of the results and jailed the elected opposition leaders, including Dr Berhanu Nega. What followed was a massacre of hundreds of unarmed opposition protesters in Addis Ababa by TPLF gunners, who in some cases pushed aside the local police.
At the end of 2005, the TPLF under Meles Zenawi also enforced a last minute parliament session to change the rules and raise the threshold needed to bring any agenda to parliament, effectively making the remaining elected opposition MPs powerless to do anything if they entered the new parliament, which they mostly boycotted.
Since then, TPLF run sham elections year after year, winning nearly 100 percent every cycle. TPLF was able to continue its brutal rule for years with impunity and little criticism from the West due to its willingness to participate on the “War on Terror” foreign policy that ended up spreading more terrorism in the Horn of Africa. After it lost power in 2018, TPLF attempted to assassinate new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and illegally organized one more sham election in 2020 (with no international observers present except a Norwegian politician Kjetil Tronvoll) and won unanimously once again. This became TPLF’s final attempt to remain in power uncontested, before it ultimately triggered the current conflict in Tigray thru an insurrection that massacred federal government forces.
Pro-democracy activists now hope the 2021 election under Prosperity Party will become different from past elections under the TPLF.
Already the 2021 election is expected to be the most competitive election since 2005 and the election board has become independent for the first time in Ethiopian history. While some federal institutions are becoming nonpartisan since the post-2018 reform; opposition parties are still concerned with Prosperity Party’s iron grip on regional media outlets and on local infrastructures at the zonal level.
Lacking the state apparatus advantage enjoyed by PP, the Ezema party has been working more at the grassroots level. With the financial support of mostly diaspora Ethiopians, Ezema has build up a strong operation, fielded candidates and opened offices nationwide, with some exceptions.
Unlike small organizations like Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) which is engaged only in one state, the Ezema is preparing nationwide in all regional states.
Despite recent reports of OFC and OLF planning to boycott, most Ethiopians already consider these two Oromo parties to be the same as Oromia-PP, the ruling party’s Oromia branch.
Jawar Mohammed, who started his career in the OPDO (now Prosperity Party) ruling party, was allied with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Oromo ruling party as recently as 2019, before the two split in an internal power struggle. In nearly all major hot button issues (including on the continuation of the infamous ethnic-federalism system) the OFC, OLF and Prosperity Party appear to be on the same team, as they share the same agenda. Therefore, several former members of OFC and OLF have already joined the Prosperity Party.
OFC leader Dr Merera Gudina (who was accused of willingly participating in rigged elections in the past run by TPLF) has recently contemplated dropping out from the 2021 election since his OFC party and Abiy’s Oromia-PP share the same platform.
The EZEMA opposition party, however, has a significantly distinct platform as it seeks to move Ethiopia away from ethnic politics in favor of citizenship based politics: advocating for individual rights, civil liberties and a more decentralized federalism.
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