Ethiopia politics: Pre-emptive strike?

FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT

The Ethiopian government claims that opposition groups are planning a campaign of destabilising street violence in the wake of May elections. Opposition groups believe the authorities are guilty of intimidation.

The Ethiopian government has accused the opposition of planning to use violence in the wake of the May 23rd elections. Tedros Hagos, head of the political bureau of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, claims that opposition groups–with backing from the West and non-governmental organisations–will seek to use street violence to overthrow the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government.

Such comments mark the latest escalation in the authorities’ rhetoric against the opposition. Earlier, the prime minister, Meles Zenawi, had made clear that the government plans to prosecute members of the opposition for “illegal conduct” in the run-up to the May polls. Mr Meles claimed that the administration had proof that some political groups were planning riots at universities and other educational institutions. The allusion to the monitoring of groups by law enforcement agencies and claims to having incriminating documents may go some way towards intimidating groups that are already fearful of government efforts to limit their ability to operate.

The atmosphere surrounding the elections is particularly tense given the violence and mass arrests that followed the May 2005 polls. And there are already substantial scepticism among domestic and international observers about whether this year’s election will be “free and fair”, given the reports of intimidation of opposition groups and the press. Tedros Hagos’s recent comments–which presuppose that the EPRDF will win the poll–will do little to assuage such doubts. To be fair, the ruling party’s confidence is probably justified. The EPRDF appears to have rebuilt its support since the 2005 election, when several opposition groups made significant gains. The ruling party will also benefit from Mr Meles’ decision to stay on as party leader until 2015, after withdrawing his earlier request to stand down. The early departure of Mr Meles could have stoked in-fighting, as there is no obvious successor with the authority and force of personality to hold together the EPRDF’s multi-ethnic framework. Now the EPRDF will be able to undertake a gradual leadership overhaul, starting at the next congress in September 2010, to groom a new generation of leaders within the party.

In contrast, the opposition is divided and under-funded, and would struggle against the EPRDF’s well-resourced and extensive party machine even if the election were fully free and fair. The EPRDF’s confidence that it will remain firmly in control at all levels of government after the election is therefore understandable. This does not mean that there are no uncertainties in the poll, however. It is not clear whether the opposition–which holds about 150 seats in the current 547-member parliament–will manage to increase its representation or lose seats, although the Economist Intelligence Unit expects that opposition groups will find it difficult to raise their share of the vote beyond that achieved in 2005. Nor is it apparent whether there will be serious violence associated with the poll, as in 2005. There is certainly the possibility of a similar outcome in 2010, but the risk of instability appears somewhat lower, in part because of measures being taken to make the electoral system more transparent–such as the signing of an electoral code of conduct between the EPRDF and moderate opposition parties–but also because of stricter surveillance and restrictions on protests. This would probably come as something of a relief to the international community. For all the government’s comments about Western collusion in opposition “plans”, the West regards Ethiopia as a key strategic base in the Horn of Africa, and is wary of offending the government with overly strident condemnations of the electoral process.

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