Despite reforms, Ethiopia faces electoral challenges

Those challenges may push the country back into what the new prime minister has been trying to avoid since he came to power five months ago

Despite reforms, Ethiopia faces electoral challenges

Despite wide-ranging reforms underway in Ethiopia, the government seems to be well poised to make the same thing again: taking a knockout win in the 2020 election, which will be the sixth since 1995.

Ironically, this time around it may be a true sweep with the government not having to steal votes; it will have the votes thanks to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who drastically changed the political landscape of the nation.

Ethiopians show support to him unequivocally and in unison. He released political prisoners, purged old guards of his party, the ruling EPRFD, reformed the army and intelligence that had remained the domain of a member party, the TPLF, made peace with parties who took up arms (which they just laid down) such as PG7, OLF and ONLF, erasing the ‘terrorist’ labels heaped upon them and made peace also with long-time foe, neighboring Eritrea.

All these, and more in other economic and social fronts he claimed within the five months since he came to power on April 2, 2018, now the prime minister is promising to stick to the election timetable.

Not all opposition political parties seem to be happy about this.

- Call for preparation time

"We would rather have the 2020 election delayed," Berhanu Nega who just arrived in Ethiopia after more than 20 years of exile in the U.S. and in Eritrea where he had commanded a rebel army known as Patriots/Ginbot 7 (PG7), told Anadolu Agency.

Nega, an economist-turned an opposition political leader, arrived last Sunday in Addis Ababa after Ahmed called all opposition figures in exile to come home and participate in the new democratization drive the country embarked on since April this year.

All of the country's exiled political figures have returned and most of them have been absolved of previous convictions that dubbed them as terrorists such as the leaders of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

Nega had been tried in absentia and was given a death sentence over charges for which the government later apologized.

"There are a lot of issues to be resolved in terms of availing a democratic and just electoral climate," Nega said. "We need continued dialogue and understanding before anything else."

According to him, the electoral playing field in the country remained as rough as ever and it should be free of any hindrances, and electoral institutions should be allowed to operate independently.

"Especially, we need an independent judiciary," he said.

Nega said his group's short-term plan is to help the government stabilize the country, however, said, "If the government can avail all the pre-requisites for a fair, democratic, just election, we will not have qualms about that."

PG7’s reservation about the election is about its timing. With less than two years left, it says, there is not enough time to do the necessary preparations.

In demanding for more time for preparations, PG7's leader might have in mind what happened during the 2005 elections.

Back then Nega's party, Kinijir, claimed major gains but an electoral dispute led to a post-election violence in which hundreds were killed and injured, and many exiled.

It seemed the ruling party was not at all prepared to concede any major defeat by then.

This explains the huge task Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government faces in terms of electoral preparations if, of course, there is a genuine desire on the part of the government to change the current situation whereby the ruling party, EPRDF, and parties affiliated to it, enjoy the 547 parliamentary seats they won in the 2015 election, which many call a sham.

In an August news conference, his first since he came to power on April 2, Abiy said he would rather stick to the regular electoral schedule which says general elections are held every five years.

Ahmed came to power in the shoes of former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who resigned in a bid to let reformers in the EPRDF take the reigns. Ahmed was one of the politically conversant reformists who wanted to overhaul the ruling party’s rank and file, its inner workings, and its philosophy.

They managed to do this by first exposing the deep-seated corruption and then going on to take measures hitherto unimaginable such as apologizing for maladministration and for state-sponsored terrorizing of the general public in many ways such as imprisonments, torture, and intimidating dissent.

Ahmed is keen on getting elected rather than being seen as just a substitute. His government appears to have a true desire to give the nation a genuine election, but the inept electoral and legal institutions should be changed. The nation seems to take a "wait-and-see stance" for the time being lured by the promises made by the incumbent premier.

- Fragmented opposition

What Ethiopians know for sure -- as they have witnessed the making of it all -- is that the reformists within the ruling EPRDF not only gave a new lease of life to a stale party but also meteorically improved its credibility.

"Now the issue is not the contest between ruling party and the opposition parties; it is the uneasy relationship between and among the much-fragmented and tattered opposition," Tigistu Awelu, a prominent and affable opposition figure and the chairman of Andinet/Unity party, told Anadolu Agency.

According to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), there are about more than 60 opposition political parties in addition to new and suspended entities which are expected to get accredited for elections in the months ahead.

Most of these parties are ethnic by nature while about 22 of them are national.

These factors have already made the opposition too weak to face a reinvigorated ruling party, whose past tactics had been to keep the opposition as weak and fragmented as possible.

Speaking to parliament in April, Ahmad expressed his wish that the nation would have few stronger parties and he called on the fragmented parties to come together to unite or form coalitions.

There have, however, been little effort by the opposition to do so. The closest thing to what Ahmad wished for so far was last week’s agreement between the Oromo Liberation Front and the Oromo Federalist Congress, expressing their desires to work together.

While a tattered opposition may augur well for the ruling party to reach a victory, another parliament full of EPRDF people is sure to disappoint the nation as a whole and potentially put the country on a U-turn course from the on-going reform measures.