Africa, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS-ETHIOPIA: Third Time Lucky for the Opposition?

Andrew Heavens

ADDIS ABABA, May 13 2005 (IPS) - Ethiopia was caught up in election fever this week as crowds of up to 300,000 people took to the streets of Addis Ababa to back the country’s ruling coalition and a range of newly invigorated opposition parties.

But the largely peaceful mass rallies and candlelit vigils masked tensions over the conduct of campaigning – and accusations of intimidation of opposition groups in the run-up to the May 15 national poll.

International election observers have been left in two minds about whether Sunday’s ballot will be sufficiently free and fair. Some praise the level of voter enthusiasm in Africa’s second most populous nation; others warn competing parties of the consequences of any abuses.

A total of 36 parties will be competing for places in the 547-seat parliament, in the third-ever democratic election to be held in Ethiopia. Legislators then elect a prime minister.

Voters will also get a chance to pick candidates for nine regional parliaments that appoint members to the upper house of parliament, the Council of the Federation. More than 300 international observers, including former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, are being deployed to monitor the poll.

The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, is widely expected to hold on to power across the country, building on its 14 years in office.

But commentators also expect the EPRDF’s huge majority in parliament to be significantly dented by opposition groups, which stand to make noticeable gains in Addis Ababa.

The extent of opposition support in the capital was underlined last Sunday (May 8) when hundreds of thousands of supporters of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) – the main opposition group – poured into Meskel Square in the centre of Addis Ababa. The EPRDF held a slightly smaller rally the day before.

“This is a victory day,” one supporter of CUD told IPS, as tens of thousands milled around him in the square, brandishing coalition placards. “We are all here to support Kinigit (CUD).”

Netsanet Asfaw, Ethiopia’s minister for information, pointed to the size of both rallies as evidence that democracy was alive and well in the country.

“Democracy is a process and I am highly encouraged by the improvements.I am extremely encouraged that 25.6 million people are registered to vote and 50 per cent of those are women – a tremendous achievement for Ethiopia.” (The country has a population of about 74 million.)

This optimism has been echoed by a number of international bodies. Tim Clarke, head of the European Union (EU) mission in Addis Ababa, told reporters this week that the occurrence of the two peaceful rallies had been a “miracle”.

“Never before in Ethiopian history has there been such an open debate in the country,” he said. “For people who have been here a long time, it’s a miracle what is happening these days…Yes, there are deficiencies, (but) this is only the third (multi-party) election in the country.”

However, Ana Gomes, leader of the EU’s 150-strong team of election observers, made a complaint to Ethiopia’s National Election Board this week about what she termed unnecessarily provocative campaign rhetoric on the part of the EPRDF. This came after Zenawi likened opposition parties to the militias responsible for Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

The National Election Board is responsible for organising and overseeing Sunday’s poll.

Days later, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing allegations of torture, arbitrary detention, and harassment of government critics and other persons in the central region of Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous area.

The New York-based group also criticised the establishment of community organisations in Oromia that are officially intended to promote development – but which allegedly serve as a means of monitoring political opinion amongst locals.

The rebel Oromo Liberation Front is currently fighting for self-determination in Oromia and for a larger share of national resources to be devoted to the region. However, Human Rights Watch has described this struggle as “ineffectual”, and accused the state of mounting a disproportionate response to it.

The two reports came in the wake of a string of similar claims from opposition parties detailing alleged imprisonments and even killings over recent weeks.

The U.S. was also stung after the Ethiopian government expelled three Washington-based groups that promote democracy last month, claiming their workers were not in possession of the right immigration papers.

But Washington’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Donald Yamamoto, said the three groups had conformed to Ethiopia’s registration procedures.

Addressing the U.S. Congress’ House Subcommittee on Africa May 5, he described the expulsions as “troubling and confusing, especially since it is the first time these organisations have been expelled from any country.”

Dave Peterson, Africa programme director of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) struck a slightly more optimistic note.

“There can be no doubt that Ethiopia is far better off in terms of respect for human rights, political pluralism, free press and economic policies any other time in its history,” he told the subcommittee.

But he went on to urge U.S. lawmakers to do all they could to press Ethiopia to allow even greater openness. In light of the country’s strategic significance, said Peterson, any drift towards “corrupt authoritarianism” would have a dire effect on the spread of democracy across the continent.

The NED is a non-governmental group headquartered in Washington that works to entrench democracy around the world.

EPRDF officials have promised to give serious consideration to the EU delegation’s criticisms. But the ruling party dismissed the Human Rights Watch report, saying it was biased and based on unsubstantiated rumours.

The controversies over election processes have been so well publicized that they have almost completely overshadowed other key issues facing the country – one of the most contentious being the matter of nationality.

Ethiopia’s present constitution, set up after the overthrow of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, gives various ethnic groups the right to self-determination – even to the point of secession. Many opposition parties are seeking to rescind this right, branding it divisive.

Another explosive issue centres on land reform.

The country’s agricultural workers – who make up about 80 percent of the population – are not allowed to own or sell the land they work on, which is allotted to them by the state.

“That land won’t be sold or bought. It belongs to the people and the government is the custodian to protect the people from selling it whenever there are stressful situations like drought,” said Information Minister Asfaw.

However, the opposition argues that private ownership of land is precisely what is needed to help farmers escape the poverty trap, as it will allow them to accumulate wealth through property sales.

Hailu Shawel, head of the CUD, seized on the issue at Sunday’s rally, promising to spur economic growth and create jobs by redistributing state-owned land and encouraging private enterprise.

“We need job creation to bring about poverty alleviation, not dependency on foreign aid – which is what we have now,” he told the crowd.

Just as heated is the debate over Ethiopia’s relationship with neighbouring Eritrea, which seceded from Ethiopia in 1993.

Thousands of lives were lost in a bitter border dispute between the two countries that lasted from 1998 until 2000. Although both states agreed to have a border commission demarcate a frontier in the disputed area, its decision to award Eritrea control of the town of Badme has proved a sore point in Addis Ababa.

Pending a final resolution of the dispute, the border between the countries remains closed, with Ethiopia prevented from using Eritrea’s Red Sea port of Assab. Ethiopia’s opposition has reportedly criticised government for allowing access to this critical gateway to be lost when independence was given to Eritrea.

Voting in Sunday’s poll is due to start at 06.00 local time, and initial results are expected to be released the following day. National polls are held every five years.

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