Letter from Ethiopia: Election 2010 Overview Part I – By Eskinder Nega (Addis Ababa)

February 19th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

EPRDF’s pending schism. (more…)

EPRDF’s pending schism.

With the upcoming elections just around the corner, one discernable dissimilarity between the EPRDF, still clinging to incumbency after almost two decades in power, and the multitude of its electoral opponents, is in how they perceive, exercise and have thus structured power.

Scratch beyond the surface and the EPRDF is really not the monolithic dinosaur as it is most commonly stereotyped. If what defines an organization is the unique amalgam of its history, quality of leadership, cohesion, grass root presence, vision, and perhaps even its luck, then the EPRDF, fast approaching its twentieth year, has evolved in to a coalition of four distinct phenomenon: the increasing confusion of the dominant TPLF; the acute cynicism of the ANDM; the desperate nihilism of the OPDO and the inevitable irrelevance of the incongruent SEPM.

A nasty, but so far bloodless, backstage interplay of these dynamics in what is now a battle to succeed Meles Zenawi has inaudibly developed in to a real threat to the cohesion of the EPRDF, arguably more dangerous than the electoral threat posed by its opponents. We now know that disaster was only averted this year with the extension of Meles’ term in office—-something he had always counted on, according to diplomats—-but this has yet to result in the much anticipated—-or rather, hoped for—ceasefire between two bickering claimants to the throne—OPDO and ANDM. What will be the spillover from this rivalry is hardly hard to predict in this election year, but the signs are already out there that both have calculated that a significant win by the opposition in their regions will undermine their claim; and are thus determined, by hook or crook, to garner as many seats as possible. The ANDM in particular, which was reluctantly forced to concede the most seats in 2005, seems bent on improving on its last performance. Not the best scenario for the opposition this year, though no serious pundit has yet written them off.

It is the vast power vested in the chair of the EPRDF that sets it in marked contrast to its opponents in general; but particularly its principal electoral opponent this year,Mederk, which has surprisingly employed the anarchic working ethos of decision making by consensus rather than majority vote. To operate by consensus, all issues are now being discussed until they are resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. The unsustainability of such an arrangement has already become all too evident, its open implosion only a question of time.

By contrast, the EPRDF is clearly a hierarchal organization with a singular power at the top in Meles Zenawi and subsequent levels of delegated power beneath him. Though collective leadership is formally acknowledged, it has no relevance in practice. And because of a complex matrix of history, socio-economy, politics and psychology, a hierarchal arrangement with a strong leader at the top is, I believe, best for Ethiopian political organizations; and, I would argue, the decisive advantage of the EPRDF over its opponents.

But the question remains if the prestige and power of EPRDF’S chairperson will endure after Meles. Both the OPDO and the ANDM are betting on it; but none of the EPRDF’s four constituent members have been able to come up with a political heavyweight remotely capable of ensuring a seamless transition. The one figure that has appeal beyond his own party, OPDO’s Girma Biru, who leads the important Commerce Ministry, is noted only for his managerial competence, not the grand vision and ruthlessness deemed crucial to keep the EPRDF vibrant and intact.

The ANDM head, Addisu Legesse, is famous for his subdued demeanor and is purportedly held in particular high esteem by Meles for refusing an offer of the Prime Ministership by Seye Abraha et al just before their expulsion from the party. But the ANDM’s unanimous rally behind Meles under the leadership of Addisu had been widely interpreted as a Machiavellian maneuver by Amharas to weaken the dominant TPLF, something that still seriously irks a significant number of strategically placed TPLF veterans. Aside from this obvious Achilles heel, Addisu is one of EPRDF’s leaders who stir little passion for or against his name. He is a clear underdog in this race to succeed Meles, and he is already being seriously undermined by a campaign to quietly push him aside on health grounds.

His deputy, Bereket Simon, whose support is generally deemed critical to the eventual successor, was instrumental in marshalling pressure for Meles’ term extension; but his considerable influence is expected to wane once Meles eventually leaves the limelight. His health notwithstanding, Bereket is still, along with Meles, EPRDF’s dynamo, his clear genius for intrigue a cause of much resentment both inside and outside the EPRDF. His reputation with the opposition for arrogance, insincerity and rigidity was contemptuously set aside by his party and he has emerged, yet again, as the lead EPRDF negotiator for the upcoming elections, a clear message that the EPRDF intends to play rough. Those who had hoped that this would mean less of his time for EPRDF’s intra-party politics have so far been profoundly disappointed; this is a man who has habitually worked overtime throughout his adult life.

The enigma of this drama is the role of Sebhat Nega, the king maker two of decades ago whose backing was vital for Meles’ accession to the helm of the TPLF. The side he chose at the climax of the fallout between Meles and Seye Abraha et al was no less crucial for the final outcome. Sebaht has chosen to leave TPLF’s politburo but remains a member of the CC. But both count for much less since the departure of Seys Abraha et al, his continued influence has more to do with his access and the propensity of Meles to listen to him. Most pundits are puzzled about his stance on the succession issue, but almost all agree that the side he chooses will be considerably emboldened.

The surprise of the last few years has been the performance of the OPDO chairman, Abadula Gemeda, whose dubious ethnicity, embarrassing weight problem and a somewhat comical intellectual pretension (he has written a book) has made him a favored subject of the city’s political jokes. However, his management of the vast Oromo region, which is larger than many African countries, and the relatively restive OPDO has won him high marks both inside and outside the EPRDF. But few believe that this has propelled him in to a serious contender for Meles’ seat. Whether he will surprise again is an open question, particularly since no one contends that he has counted himself out.

So though the EPRDF enters this election season confident that its victory is assured, it is less united than it has ever been in its history. How the opposition utilizes the fault lines in the EPRDF to their advantage will test the acumen of their best leaders.

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