By Jacey Fortin in Addis Ababa
Aside from the problems associated with their own splintering and divisions, opposition parties in the 24 May elections are struggling to get their message to people too remote, afraid or busy to engage with politics.
Hana Yshak is excited. For the first time in her life, the 21-year-old hairdresser will be old enough to vote in Ethiopia’s national elections.
Though she has already made her decision, she is hesitant to reveal it.
Here in Ethiopia, they consider politics to be like electricity. If you touch it, it will burn you
“I think development has been going well in this country,” she hints, braiding a client’s hair with practised ease.
Politics is a touchy subject in Ethiopia’s capital city. Hana still has hazy memories of 2005, when a contested national election erupted into fatal violence in Addis Ababa.
After the fighting, opposition members who had won more than 100 seats in parliament refused to take them up.
Since then, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four ethnic-based parties, has tightened its hold on the country’s political sphere.
The government has overseen a period of impressive – and relatively inclusive – economic expansion, with official gross domestic product growth rates exceeding 10% over the past decade.
It is investing in several large-scale infrastructure projects, including sub-Saharan Africa’s first urban light-rail transit system and the continent’s largest hydropower dam.
But campaigners also criticise it for violating human rights and clamping down on free speech.
In its latest report, human rights group Amnesty International pointed to the government’s “relentless crackdown on real or imagined dissent” in the Oromia Region, home to the Oromo Liberation Front rebel group.
In Africa, Ethiopia is second only to Eritrea for imprisoned journalists, according to the Commission to protect Journalists.
Hana works seven days a week, so she does not have much time to discuss politics with friends and family. She admits that she knows little about opposition parties.
“But I have to vote,” she explains. “I got my registration card. Officials came here to the salon to give it to me.”
This will be Ethiopia’s first national election since Meles Zenawi, the former prime minster and architect of Ethiopia’s developmental model, died in 2012.
“Meles is no longer around, but his legacy and his vision are now shared more broadly than ever,” argues government spokesman Redwan Hussein.
“All the members of the party – and the wider populace – have now understood what the party has been struggling for.”
He adds that the EPRDF has broadened its membership to more than seven million people and that successful efforts to fight poverty in Africa’s second-most populous country have led to a groundswell in popular support for the ruling party.
Ethiopian citizens will choose their candidates for regional councils and the federal parliament on 24 May.
Should the EPRDF win, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will retain his post until later in the year when the party holds a congress to determine its leadership.
Officials refuse to speculate on any potential reshuffling, which will be up to a council of 180 members from the four constituent parties.
Analysts say it is likely that Hailemariam, who was groomed by Meles and has remained true to his vision, will hold onto the top post.
A plethora of parties
Candidates from 58 political parties have registered for the upcoming election, according to Wondimu Golla, the deputy chief of the secretariat of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE).
The board has also chosen local civil society observers for polling stations nationwide.
“We guarantee the independence of the board,” says Wondimu. “Nobody on the board or from the executive is a member of any political party.”
But many opposition party members say the board’s independence should be questioned, as it is part of a political system that has been dominated by the EPRDF for more than two decades.
Two major parties, the All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP) and Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), have suffered in recent months due to electoral board decisions that seem to have capitalised on internal disputes.
UDJ member Girma Seifu, the only op- position member currently in parliament, says he will not run for another term since NEBE recognised a splinter group within his party, effectively dismantling the bloc.
“We need to think. We need to reflect,” he says. “But it’s not a defeat, it’s a great success. We just proved that this government is not serious about multi- party democracy.”
Wondimu disagrees: “This issue has been discussed too much before the public. The problem here is that political parties have to abide by their own byelaws. If they fail to meet the regulations of their own byelaws, they have to be penalised.”
The Blue Party, which coalesced in 2012, has benefited greatly from the fracturing of the UDJ.
Despite its youth, it has been particularly active in organising street protests in the capital and is among the top five parties in terms of candidates registered for the elections.
Blue Party chairman Yilkal Getnet explains: “We tried to register around 400 candidates, but the election board cancelled about 200 of our candidates for the federal parliament and they did not give any good reason why.”
He notes that issues arose because some members had recently switched from the UDJ.
Opposition parties have long been plagued by infighting and a lack of public engagement.
In the capital in 2005, an opposition party called the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), emerged victorious in urban areas but fell apart after the results were contested, violent protests erupted and several of its leaders were jailed.
In the end, most CUD members boycotted the federal parliament.
The UDJ sprang up to continue CUD’s legacy, but leadership squabbles over the past two years have weakened its appeal.
“In my view, the government took advantage of divisions within the opposition parties,” says Hallelujah Lulie, a researcher with the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Addis Ababa.
“In the end, after the questionable NEBE intervention, both the AEUP and the UDJ are much weaker than they were a year ago.
“But I think it would be very simplistic to put it all on the government. Of course, the government took advantage of divisions, but those divisions already existed within the parties.”
The intricacies of opposition party dynamics are lost on many voters who would rather abstain from the political process than cast a vote for change.
Addis residents – including some party supporters – say that voicing dissent is risky, citing the omnipresence of cadres and officials who comb the streets in plain clothes.
One group of young men in casual attire, upon observing a street interview conducted for The Africa Report, rounded up some policemen to escort this reporter to a nearby station for an identification check – scaring off a group of interviewees who had been lavishing praise on the EPRDF.
Opposition parties hope to capitalise on this sense of unease by promising better human rights and protection of privacy, but it is an uphill battle.
“Here in Ethiopia, they consider politics to be like electricity. If you touch it, it will burn you,” says Addis resident Fekademariam Admassu, 54.
“In any case, there is no true competition in Ethiopia. Opposition parties don’t have the space.”
Though he would love to see standards of living improve in the capital, Fekademariam has not voted in a decade.
“In the countryside, it’s even worse,” he adds. “The farmers depend on the government for things like fertiliser and irrigation networks, and that leads to party loyalty.”
Outside of Addis, the government engages with tens of millions of rural residents via agricultural assistance initiatives and the ‘five-to-one’ programme, which organises workers into groups of five with one leader.
That leader can act as a representative with local officials, as well as disseminate propaganda down to the lowest levels.
“The EPRDF is supporting farmers on how to use fertiliser, how to use selected seeds and so on,” says Desta Tesfaw, EPRDF head of public and foreign relation affairs.
“The opposition parties’ stand is that rural farmers do not have the capacity to give power and that is their problem. The EPRDF is not an elite-based party.”
Desta Bohala, a 50-year-old farmer with a small plot of land in the northern region of Tigray, says life has been changing for the better.
There are more opportunities for her children, and her own five-to-one group has improved neighbourhood security.
But, like many women in rural areas, Desta claims to know nothing about politics.
She received little education, and her husband is the one invited to local government meetings. To her, voting is not a choice but a duty – one she is happy to oblige.
“I will vote for the ruling party because they support farmers,” she says.
In a country where the vast majority of people live in rural areas, attitudes like these are key to the ruling party’s electoral success.
“There are strong accusations, most of them legitimate, that the ruling party is using state resources and institutions to pursue the party interests,” says the ISS’s Hallelujah.
“So it’s very difficult to talk about rural support and how genuine it is when 80% of the population lives in rural areas and when the state is the only thing that has access to most of these people.
“There isn’t a clear line between the state and the party in many rural areas.”
Even opposition party members agree that in this environment, the ruling party is likely to retain its overwhelming dominance when the results are announced a few weeks after the vote.
In the meantime, dissenters will do their best to improve the quality of political discourse, make space for opposition parties and reach out to disillusioned citizens. ●
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