Western Embassies, Neway Debebe and the Last Days of Election 2010 – Eskinder Nega (Addis Ababa)

May 21st, 2010 Print Print Email Email

The last two weeks of election 2010’s campaign season witnessed a flurry of activities by the EPRDF and the opposition. (more…)

The last two weeks of election 2010’s campaign season witnessed a flurry of activities by the EPRDF and the opposition. Absent a strong media through which they could get their message across, the opposition relied on millions of fliers and, to a lesser extent, on a string of last minute public meetings to connect with voters. No one knows how many fliers the EPRDF, whose financial resources dwarfs that of the opposition, has distributed. But a scan of the opposition show that almost all of them have strategized heavily on fliers, betting that rural folks will be able to take them discreetly in to their homes, providing them with an alternative to the domineering EPRDF; and more importantly, acquainting them with their election symbols—five fingers for Medrek, thumb for AEUP, flower for EDP, and bee for the EPRDF.

Of the sequence of public meetings over the past fifteen days, the most interesting ones, next to those in Tigray, up north, long a strong hold of the EPRDF, have been the ones staged in the South, home to more than 40 of Ethiopia’s 80 ethnic groups; and now where all parties adamantly insist that record numbers have come out to attend their meetings. But most pundits expect the main competition to be between the ruling party and Medrek, the largest opposition party, prominently represented in the region by its President, Professor Beyene Petros, who is a native of  Hadeya, one of the constituent zones that make up The South region. It is also where a heated contest between a high profile EPRDF official, Berhanu Adelo, who is an advisor to the PM, and Dr Asheber Welde Girogis, a former President of Ethiopia’s football association, is generating a series of sensational claims and counter-claims. The controversial dentist, who was educated in the former Soviet Union, and owns a chain of successful clinics in Addis Ababa, is running as an independent. (Pro-EPRDF but against Berhanu, he openly claims.) The rivalry between the two has its genesis in the Ethiopian Football Association, which was led by Asheber for some time before being ousted by a putsch led from behind the scene by Berhanu. This is visibly one of the hotspots of the election, no doubt a magnet for the far too scarce EU and AU observers; who have to carefully identify where they will be monitoring.

There are over 260, 000 election observers this year, but the foreign contingents, who are the only credible ones, constitute a tiny fraction. Their number has further been reduced by a surprise decision of the EPRDF last week to bar embassies and international organizations in Addis from observing the elections. And even worse, a draconian restriction against the free movement of diplomats has been imposed to enforce the ban; they now need special permits from the Foreign Ministry for travel outside of Addis. “We observed the 2005 and previous elections,” said a disappointed James Callahan, the US embassy spokesperson, to local media. So why not this year? “Maybe the EPRDF has something big to hide,” says a pundit. But the EPRDF, whose paranoia is bizarrely irrational, is insinuating that even foreign embassies (understood to be the Western ones) are flirting with street protests. “ They spare no effort to bow to foreign countries and(their)embassies(in Addis),” says a recent Walta editorial on its website about the opposition, “as if they had supreme power over Ethiopia’s politics. They have been attempting to make outsiders accomplices (in their effort) to change the government through street violence.”

But the EPRDF’s unfathomable belligerence is not only directed against its friends in the international community. It has upped its bewildering—and one sided—confrontation with Medrek, whose leaders are amongst the pioneers of non-violent political engagement in Ethiopia, by formally pressing charges against it with the electoral board. “We have submitted an array of complaints against Medrek and Dr Asheber, chiefly for obstructing the peaceful conduct of the electoral process,” said HaileMariam Desalegn this week. Medrek leaders’ angry response, while expected, was hardly necessary. “No one believes the EPRDF,” says a diplomat.

Believed or not, however, the EPRDF was not content to let the week pass with only one breathtaking episode to its credit. It had to also fantastically predicate a total sweep for itself in Addis. “We have conducted an internal poll,” said HaileMariam to local media,” the results show the EPRDF winning all seats in Addis Ababa. We have also identified problems areas, and they are: West Shoa, Dessie and Gonder citeies.”

West Shoa, whose main town is Ambo, is where Dr Merera Gudina, one of the leaders of Medrek, is running as an incumbent, and also where his party should be able to repeat its success in 2005. A large rally staged by the EPRDF was held in Ambo on Tuesday, but few are predicting that the popular Dr Merara will be defeated in his home turf. His margin of victory over the ruling party in 2005, 82% for him verses only 17% for the EPRDF, is generally considered to be too high to be reversed this year. But the EPRDF seems determined to reverse its huge loss in the area, and the number of foreign observers will not be enough to deter rigging. Many pundits expect the EPRDF to register major gains in the area, and then to precede from there to allege that the opposition opted to react violently to the outcome, giving it pretext to clampdown hard against opposition supporters.

Dessie, one of the two cities mentioned by HaileMariam, is famed for repeatedly rejecting the EPRDF; in 2005 giving it one of the smallest share of votes in the country, only 15 %. The EPRDF is hoping that a split opposition vote will give it a chance in Dessie( and throughout the Amhara region), but that presupposes about a third of the vote to the EPRDF, a threshold few expect it to attain short of rigging. The percentage of votes cast for it in Gonder, the other city referred to by HaileMriam, is larger than Dessie, averaging around the mid 20s, but again short of the magical mid 30s needed for the EPRDF to finish first-across-the-line and win fairly. “A ten percentage point shift in public opinion in favor of the EPRDF has not happened anywhere in the country. We don’t need a poll to know that,” says a pundit.

But even if both cities are declared for the EPRDF this year, it will hardly surprise residents, who are cynically resigned to the specter of rigging; as is the whole nation. And with no expectation in the horizon, there is no reason for the kind of street protests seen in 2005; the internal polls, surveys and assessments of the EPRDF notwithstanding. Thus the lingering suspicion that these three areas are where the EPRDF is intending to crackdown. “But the EPRDF may have its sights elsewhere, and is merely toying with the public; deflecting attention from its real intentions,” says a pundit who has closely watched the EPRDF over the past two decades. “They love to surprise.”

In the meantime, election season has officially drawn to a close on Thursday; after, according to official figures, 63 contesting political parties used over 680 hours of TV and radio air time; over 90 million election materials were distributed to 43, 000 polling stations; and only a parsimonious 189 million birr(about 15 million US dollars) from government and donor sources was allocated for the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia. Voting is to ensue early on Sunday, with millions of people lining up to vote that few expect will in the end be tallied transparently. Most will vote out of a sense of duty to the government, whose omnipresence in their lives is assured by the services and food aid it provides in rural areas. And as a farmer I met on an interstate bus a few weeks ago assured me, most voters are convinced that though they will be casting their votes in total privacy, the government, which uses food aid as a political weapon, according to HRW, will be able to find out who voted for whom if it wants to. Be prepared to receive news of EPRDF’s “win” by Wednesday.( Most EPRDF officials favor the declaration of the final results within 48 hours.)

And finally, Neway Debebe, a popular pop artist whose mid-life crisis is widely believed to have induced him to return to Ethiopia after years in exile opposing the EPRDF, lashed out against the opposition for using his music for political campaigns. Neway

“My music is intended for the public, not political parties. The people and the government might get the wrong impression,” said Neway, according to local media.

But the question is: would he be saying the same thing if he thought the opposition had any chance of winning?

A  Note to my Readers.

Sunday is Election Day, and I am intending to update you twice on that day. My first dispatch will be mid-day, Ethiopian time, and the second towards the end of the day when polls close. Hope you will find the time to read them.

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