Ethiopia: Birtukan Mideksa Released as Meles Zenawi Further Consolidates Power

Four and a half months after Ethiopia’s most recent parliamentary elections, in which Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) scored a massive victory, Meles continues to consolidate his already substantial power. After his swearing-in ceremony earlier this week, Meles moved to re-structure the government. Changes include increased responsibility for Hailemariam Desalegn (a rising figure in the EPRDF), an increased emphasis on poverty reduction, and a continued “preference for the Chinese model of government-driven economic growth.” Growth has been a core achievement for Meles and his party, and they appear committed to a platform of “more of the same.” The forward-looking and confident mood of the party (they hold 545 of the parliament’s 547 seats) apparently also goes hand in hand with a willingness to ease up on adversaries. Yesterday, the government released Birtukan Mideksa, a prominent opposition activist.

VOA gives some background:

The 36-year-old former judge was among scores of opposition leaders sentenced to life in prison on treason charges following violent protests that followed Ethiopia’s disputed 2005 election. All were pardoned in 2007, after signing a letter admitting they provoked the violence. But Birtukan was ordered back to jail after she publicly denied responsibility for the troubles and said she had not asked for the pardon.

Ethiopia’s Justice Ministry issued a statement saying President Girma Woldegiorgis had pardoned Birtukan on the recommendation of the federal prison board.

The statement said Birtukan had made a formal request to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi last month regretting that she had ‘deceived’ the Ethiopian people by denying she had asked for the earlier pardon, and begging the prime minister for a second pardon so she could care for her aging mother and child.

[…]

Birtukan’s pardon is seen as a magnanimous gesture to the international community at a time when Ethiopia’s weak opposition parties have been effectively demolished. The U.S. State Department’s latest human-rights report listed Birtukan as a political prisoner, while independent human-rights groups described her as a prisoner of conscience.

Several outlets reported that hundreds of supporters greeted her upon her release, but to me her freedom indicates the EPRDF’s confidence that she poses no political threat to them. Her release also strikes me as an indication that Meles, despite his government’s orientation toward the Chinese and his occasional criticism of the West, wants to maintain goodwill with Western countries who are concerned about Ethiopia’s human rights record. With Western support – or at least indifference – and internal control, Meles’ political position will be strong indeed.

Ethiopia: Medrek Brings Court Case against Electoral Board

I do not think this will work, but the details of the process are potentially important:

The country’s biggest opposition coalition, the eight-party Medrek, won just a single seat [in May’s elections]. Medrek and the smaller All Ethiopia Unity Party (AEUP) then called for a re-run claiming pre-poll intimidation and some vote rigging.

The National Electoral Board (NEB), however, rejected their request, saying neither party provided any hard evidence to back up their complaints.

Reuters suggests the legal proceedings could affect Ethiopia’s relationship with America and Europe.

The aftermath of the May 23 poll is being watched by Western diplomats in a country that is a growing destination for investment and Washington’s key ally in the Horn of Africa, where it is seen as standing against Islamic militancy.

[…]The United States said the election failed to meet international standards and the government’s next steps could shape the future of U.S. ties to the country.

We’ll see how far this court challenge goes, and how the regime handles it.

Ethiopian Elections: Results and Criticisms

Ethiopia released results of its parliamentary elections yesterday. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) won at least 499 of 547 seats. Eleven more seats remain to be declared. That increases the EPRDF’s majority by at least 172 seats (2005 results here). Medrek, the most prominent opposition alliance, has won only a single seat so far.

The headquarters of Ethiopia’s main opposition party was like a funeral parlor as observers reported in from around the country, opposition leaders were dumbstruck at the possibility of a nearly complete rout.

High-profile leaders such as former president Negasso Gidada, senior figures in the parliamentary opposition Merera Gudina and Beyene Petros, all appear headed for defeat.

Other prominent political leaders, including Hailu Shewal and Lidetu Ayalew were also said to have conceded.

Ruling party leader and incumbent Prime Minister Meles Zenawi struck a defiant tone vis-a-vis the rest of the world:

Mr Meles, one of Washington’s and London’s closest regional allies, told a rally in the capital, Addis Ababa, on Tuesday that foreign forces could do nothing to overturn the outcome and warned against any post-election bloodshed.

“The vast majority of the residents of our cities and the farmers of our country who actually consider themselves and the EPRDF as two sides of a coin have yet again shown the world that nothing can ever shake their unwavering support for our organisation,” he said.

Still, the EU and the US are questioning the integrity of the results:

The EU:

EU Chief Observer Thijs Berman says this year’s elections have been relatively peaceful, and the voting process was well-planned and safe.  But his preliminary report states the election was marred by a “lack of level playing field”, which favored the ruling party.

Berman also says the ruling party used government resources for campaign purposes, had unfair access to the state-run media, and blocked other news sources, such as VOA broadcasts.  And without a national voting list, he said, it is impossible to detect certain kinds of fraud, like double-voting.

“These shortcomings lead us to the conclusion that this electoral process falls short of certain international principles, certain international commitments,” said Berman.

The US:

“While the elections were calm and peaceful and largely without any kind of violence, we note with some degree of remorse that the elections there were not up to international standards,” Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson told a House of Representatives panel.

Carson, the Obama administration’s top diplomat for Africa, said Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government had taken “clear and decisive” steps to ensure it won a landslide victory in Sunday’s vote. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and allied parties won nearly every seat in the country’s 547-member parliament.

What effect will such statements have in Ethiopia? Meles was as defiant in private as in public, it seems: an Al Jazeera reporter writes, “I understand from sources that Thijs Berman, the EU chief observer, had been summoned by Zenawi on Monday for a serious dressing down – even a threat of expelling the 170-strong mission from the country.”

I do not think Meles fears the EU or the US, perhaps because he believes they will not move from words to actions – in other words, from statements to cutting aid. We’ll see who blinks first.

Ethiopian Elections: The Day After

Ethiopia held parliamentary elections yesterday. The government called the voting “free and fair,” but “opposition groups said Sunday’s vote was fraught with voter intimidation and harassment, which they said was the ruling party’s ploy to ensure its firm grip on power.” The government reported turnout of approximately 90%.

International observers will report their findings in the next few days.

Provisional results should appear on Tuesday, but most analysts expect the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and incumbent Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to win re-election easily. Meles is confident of victory:

“Imagine a government which has delivered double-digit growth rates for over seven years losing an election anywhere on earth. It is unheard of for such a phenomenon to happen,” he told Reuters, wearing a baseball cap and leather jacket.

Here are some journalists’ accounts from around the country:

  • BBC: “Will Ross in Addis Ababa says voting in the polling stations he visited in the capital appeared well organised, with a steady flow of voters.”
  • Reuters: “While there has been some violence in both Oromia and Tigray, the capital was very calm on polling day. At the University of Addis Ababa, hundreds of students queued to vote in lecture halls. Election officials checked voting cards, put indelible ink on the thumbnail of each person and explained the party symbols on the ballot paper.”
  • Al Jazeera: “Andrew Simmons, reporting from the capital Addis Ababa, said most people were wondering by what margin the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) would win, rather than whether it would win.”
  • VOA: “The European Union and the African Union had about 240 observers spread across the country monitoring activities at 43,000 polling stations. After the polls closed, chief EU observer Thygs Berman called the election ‘peaceful and quiet’, but acknowledged there had been complaints of vote rigging.”
  • The Times: “Soon after polling stations opened at 6am dozens of voters queued patiently in the morning light outside a school administration building in the crossroads town of Mojo, central Ethiopia. Here and elsewhere in Africa’s second most populous country yesterday’s election got off to a calm and well-organised start, but opposition groups were quick to allege intimidation and irregularities. In Mojo officers given the task of explaining the voting process to the people as they arrived at polling stations informed voters that all but one of the town’s candidates for the national parliamentary elections had withdrawn at the last minute.”

It would have been nice to hear more about voting outside of Addis Ababa, but the overall impression I got was that voting proceeded calmly. The opposition, as quoted in different outlets, sounds upset but not confrontational; one leader said the opposition will not call for protests. If the opposition accepts the results without mass public dissent, a repeat of the violence of 2005 will likely not occur.

The New York Times writes that “an electoral sweep by the ruling party is likely to heighten strains between Mr. Meles and the Obama administration.” That could be, but I think the jury’s still out. From initial comments by EU personnel, it looked like they were poised to call the election credible. Perhaps the US will follow suit and avoid a dispute with the EPRDF regime. On the other hand, as I’ve said before, harsh rhetoric from Meles about the US and his government’s jamming of VOA (as the NYT mentions) are sources of strain. I guess policymakers in Washington will have to weigh the importance of contested elections for the US relationship with Ethiopia. Perhaps that’s not important to Washington at all, and the relationship will continue on its bumpy but long road.

As soon as results come down I’ll try and get something up and then there will be more room for analysis. Still, at the moment it looks like the EPRDF will have little trouble staying in power.

AJE has a video of the voting:

Ethiopian Elections Roundup

Ethiopia votes tomorrow. Here is some of the main coverage from around the web:

  • New York Times: “Repression is Alleged before Vote in Ethiopia”
  • VOA: “Ethiopian Diaspora in US Is Split over Role in Election”
  • BBC: “Does Ethiopia Have an Image Problem?”
  • Wall Street Journal: “Critics Stifled in Ethiopia”
  • AP: “Ethiopia’s Ruling Party Poised to Win Election”
  • Time: “The Eerie Silence of Ethiopia’s Election Campaign”
  • AFP: “Ethiopian Religious Leaders Call for Peaceful Polls”
  • Al Jazeera: “Ethiopian Ruling Party under Fire”

I will post results as they become available, though I don’t think we’ll see any tomorrow.

Here’s an AJE interview with Meles Zenawi, the incumbent prime minister.

Will Ethiopia’s Elections Be a Non-Event?

Five days remain before Ethiopia’s parliamentary elections, which most analysts say will prove an easy win for incumbent Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.

Harar, Ethiopia by Ahron de Leeuw

Oberlin College International Studies Professor Eve Sandberg says the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has made sure its message has been heard by would-be voters. “The current government has been using the media, which they control in a non-stop way to broadcast programs, which talk about how much better this regime is than the previous one and the fact that at least they have built roads, and at least they have painted some buildings, and at least people are not experiencing famine,” she said.

Sandberg who recently worked as a political consultant in Ethiopia says, on the other side of the political equation, the opposition has nearly disappeared. “Their leaders are either in jail, in exile, or have resigned because they cannot see any way forward.  If they show they are in opposition many of them find that police show up and they are either shot, or detained or harassed,” she said.

A series of campaign-related killings in Ethiopia has raised tensions and sparked counter allegations between the government and opposition.

Sandberg and other experts quoted in the linked article contrast the upcoming elections with the contested elections of 2005, which culminated in violence and repression by the regime and gave a disputed super-majority to the ruling party.

Earlier, some observers had feared a repeat of 2005, but now it seems that the most likely outcome will be that easy EPRDF win, continued government repression of opposition leaders, some grumbling about American support for a less-than-democratic regime, and then maintenance of the status quo. I do not doubt that the EPRDF has substantial support among the population, but if Sandberg’s observations are correct then the stage was set long ago for an election that will not seriously test that support.

This situation contains several tragedies. There is the tragedy of opposition figures rotting in jail, and there is the tragic violence that has already occurred during the campaign season. But another tragedy is simply the lack of information available to Ethiopians and to outside observers. Stated simply, it is difficult to tell what is going on inside Ethiopia. That is not only due to government actions against journalists and media outlets, but also to the lack of interest most Western news sources are showing in the elections. With the Sudanese elections recently, there was enough coverage, enough discussion, for outsiders to gain a detailed (though of course not total, by any means) sense of events, personalities, trends. With the elections in Ethiopia we do not have that, and that shortchanges both Ethiopians and observers in the West who want to know how and whether our governments’ support for Meles affects the situation inside Ethiopia.

For more, check out this BBC profile of Meles.

Tense Run-Up to Ethiopian Elections

With all the attention to Sudan’s elections, it would be easy to forget about Ethiopia‘s, scheduled for May 23rd. Even though Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his EPRDF are favored to win, some analysts fear a repeat of the violence that marred the 2005 elections. Heated pre-election rhetoric adds to that worry:

The ruling party said late on Tuesday that Beyene Petros, leader of the main opposition coalition Medrek, told thousands of supporters it was possible to oust the government violently.

“He said that if the public is not happy with a government they can create some kind of problem, can protest and can bring down the government without elections,” ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) spokesman, Sekuture Getachew, told Reuters late on Tuesday.

“We can only guess they are inclining toward some kind of violent activities,” said Sekuture.

Beyene called the allegations “outrageous” and said his speech only mentioned constitutional means of removing governments, such as votes of no confidence.

I neither want to make false equivalencies (“both sides talk tough, so it all evens out”) nor absolve the opposition of responsibility (“they’re the opposition so they must be the good guys”), but regardless of who one favors in the elections the rhetoric is a cause for concern.