There are few political posters to be found on the streets of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, ahead of Sunday’s general elections. Print media coverage is remarkably cryptic. The few debates held on TV have been derided by some Ethiopians as boring and even embarrassing for the opposition, which today is weaker and more divided than it has ever been. Election results seem like a forgone conclusion, with good reason. In 2010, the longtime ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), won 546 out of 547 seats in Parliament. The country’s political context has not changed in the five year since, and an equally one-sided victory may be in store.
Despite its political dominance, or perhaps because of it, the EPRDF has lost its zeal and is becoming increasingly authoritarian and listless since the death of its charismatic leader, former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, in 2012. Sunday’s election is the fifth since the first national elections in 1992, in a country theoretically committed to a democratic and decentralized state crafted around “ethnic federalism,” a progressive constitution and a commitment to human rights. Today reality differs markedly from those ideals championed in the early 1990s.
Nevertheless, Ethiopia is getting rich. Economic growth has reached 10 percent of GDP, with 8 percent growth forecast through 2019. The economic miracle is based largely on foreign direct investment and an exceptionally high public investment rate. Roads, railways, dams, glass-facade buildings and factories proliferate even in peripheral regions of the country. But this boom has introduced a host of problems, including the consolidation of wealth, corruption, nepotism among EPRDF party members and friends, heightened expectations—seldom realized—for the young and educated, and income inequality that only highlights Ethiopia’s systemic poverty.
The elections ideally should bridge these gaps between promise and reality, both political and economic, but history says otherwise.
The mechanics of elections in Ethiopia have improved markedly since 1992. Polling station officials know the election laws; police know their responsibilities and limits; and citizens know that democracy means expressing a political choice. The optimistic view is that when political space opens and a viable opposition emerges, the electorate will vote their interests. The problem is that Ethiopians, in the government’s eyes, made the wrong choice in 2005, when they voted for the opposition and were severely punished for it.
Opposition parties officially received 31 percent of the vote that year, though many Ethiopians believed the opposition won a majority. The results deeply unsettled the EPRDF, which seized the ballots and pre-emptively declared itself the winner. Anti-government demonstrations erupted and were met by state repression, with 193 people shot by federal police and military snipers from rooftops. Over 40,000 young Ethiopians were arrested and beaten, the majority taken to detention camps. These retributions cowed Ethiopia’s urban population.
The most lasting reprisal, however, was inflicted on peasants, who have effectively been beaten into submission to vote for the EPRDF. After 2005, rations of sugar, kerosene, seeds and fertilizer were denied, credit applications rejected and access to education and health care curtailed. In areas home to the already marginalized Oromo ethnic group, which makes up around 35 percent of Ethiopia’s population, police and government-sanctioned militias surrounded schools and beat students.
The EPRDF further secured its dominance among the 75 percent of the electorate that still works the land by extending its control well beyond neighborhood administration, known as the kebele, down to the household level. It designated one out of every five heads of households a government representative, whose duty was to advocate for his constituents while simultaneously reporting on their activities. This new elite, in combination with the government’s harsh tactics, has convinced and intimidated peasants to support the EPRDF.
For the urban population, other measures were put in place. Ahead of the 2010 elections, the EPRDF enacted three laws: the Charities and Societies Proclamation, the Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. The first law curbed civil society and NGOs; the second silenced public social and political dissent; and the third ensured that anyone who did not fit into the first two could be apprehended on suspicion of being a threat to the state. In 2014, six newspapers were shut down, and last month six bloggers and three freelance journalists were arrested.
Seventy-six parties are reputedly contesting the upcoming national and regional elections, according to the National Election Board, but who will appear on the ballot on May 24 remains an open question. Moreover, some “opposition” parties are opposition in name only, with a separate party designation given to tacit supporters of the EPRDF, as in the case of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, the main opposition party in 2005. Through its control of government organs, the EPRDF has also interfered in the organization of opposition parties, including by co-opting them from within, while other parties have received authorization from the National Election Board only to be subsequently accused of terrorism. Last week, a spokesman for the up-and-coming Semayawi, or Blue Party, claimed that party members were being beaten and harassed and that they may boycott the election.
But there is even more intrigue behind the scenes within the EPRDF, with signs of a renewed power struggle between the party’s Central Committee and a group of senior ethnic Tigrean revolutionaries that were sidelined in 2000 after the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, according to René Lefort, a longtime observer of Ethiopia. Moreover, Lefort suggested that a younger generation is also struggling to assume power. On top of this, the puppet parties that the EPRDF created as a facade of decentralization have assumed enormous power themselves. Amid all the political wrangling, the military is becoming an industrial and economic leviathan, a “deep state” similar to Egypt’s military.
The election, therefore, is a screen obscuring the real contest, which will be decided within the EPRDF between those four power blocs. No person or clique has emerged within the EPRDF to unseat Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who, though often depicted as the EPRDF’s ineffectual figurehead, will likely remain prime minister. Desalegn’s experience serving under Zenawi should not be underestimated. It was also under his watch as chief party whip that Parliament passed the set of laws that essentially gave the EPRDF unchecked powers in 2009.
Barring political or ethnic violence, Sunday’s elections should go smoothly and appear credible, at least at the polling stations. Opposition parties will gain a few seats in parliament, and the rumor will circulate, as it did in 2010, that if blank ballots—a form of protest vote—were counted, they would exceed those won by the EPRDF.
In the meantime, most Ethiopians, understandably jaded by their country’s politics, will continue to focus more on the economic and construction boom, irrespective of whether they or their families will benefit. Their fascination with the spectacle of newly built buildings and roads affirms the choice that the EPRDF made after the 2005 elections: abandon democracy in principle, adopt the Chinese developmental state in practice and hope the people remain placated.