Ethiopia’s Embarrassing Elections – By ABEBE GELLAW

June 1st, 2010 Print Print Email Email

Stage-managed elections in the east African country deliver a fourth term for Meles Zenawi. (more…)

Stage-managed elections in the east African country deliver a fourth term for Meles Zenawi.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, one of America’s key allies in Africa, is gloating over his “landslide victory” in the country’s national elections earlier this month. The ruling party has claimed to have swept all but two of the 546 declared seats, which is more than enough to make the parliament a complete rubber stamp for Mr. Zenawi.

On Tuesday, a few hours before international observers released their preliminary report on the credibility of the polls, Mr. Zenawi gathered tens of thousands of his supporters for a victory rally at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, and called on the opposition and the international community to fully accept the supposed verdict of the people of Ethiopia.

The rally was also well-choreographed to condemn “foreign elements,” especially Human Rights Watch, which had already dismissed the elections as fraudulent. “Behind an orderly façade, the government pressured, intimidated and threatened Ethiopian voters,” said Rona Peligal, Human Rights Watch’s acting Africa director. “Whatever the results, the most salient feature of this election was the months of repression preceding it.”

Despite growing international uproar, Mr. Zenawi had a different take on the outcome of the “historic” elections. “As the whole world knows,” he said, “the fourth national elections have taken place in a peaceful, democratic and credible manner. These elections have been conducted successfully according to plan,” he declared.

His own hype notwithstanding, Mr. Zenawi has never managed to convince independent observers that elections have been free and fair since he came to power in 1991 after waging a bloody, 17-year-long guerrilla war to oust his predecessor dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam.

It was no surprise that the European Union and U.S. came out quickly, albeit quietly, to contradict Mr. Zenawi’s self-congratulatory victory speech. While both noted that the elections were largely peaceful and free of violence, they added they were marred by a narrowing political space and did not meet “international standards.” This is diplomatic understatement at its most impressive.

If even a modicum of “democratic legitimacy” can be had by stage-managing national elections every five years, then Mr. Zenawi and his brutal iron fist will undoubtedly rule Ethiopia for many more years to come. After all, Ethiopian’s multi-party system has been carefully crafted to allow ethnically fractured and impotent opposition parties to confront the ruling party’s juggernaut, while guarding the incumbent’s security, logistic, financial, political and organizational advantage. In Ethiopia under Meles, as in the Mengistu era, the state and the ruling party are one and the same.

These fourth national elections were not any different from the previous three. As usual, the result was a foregone conclusion well before the game kicked off. The ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, is a coalition of ethnic parties created by Mr. Zenawi’s minority Tigray people’s Liberation Front in 1989. The ruling umbrella group has managed to spread its tentacles across the country within the last two decades, and boasts a membership of well over five million—one in six of the 29 million people reported to have cast their votes. Every ruling party member was ordered to bring at least five other voters to the polls.

The only time the ruling party was on the verge of losing power was during the third national elections. In 2005, the atmosphere was freer and opposition parties were allowed to hold unfettered political rallies and campaigns. The now defunct Coalition for Unity and Democracy party did extremely well. But the ruling party claimed victory before the count was completed.

When opposition supporters demanded respect for their votes and held protest rallies to vent their anger, Mr. Zenawi ordered loyalist security forces to crack down on dissent. Security forces opened fire in Addis Ababa, killing 193 civilians and wounding nearly 800 others. Opposition leaders, journalists, and civil society leaders were arrested and charged with treason and genocide. Over 40,000 opposition party supporters were rounded up and detained in military camps.

This year, it was clear Mr. Zenawi had learned from his 2005 mistakes, and took a series of preemptive measures to skew the election result. He closed down a number of critical newspapers, jammed Voice of America, blocked critical websites, banned all forms opposition rallies, crippled civil society organizations, and deliberately fomented divisions in the opposition camp. The charismatic Birtukan Mideksa, whom many refer to as the Ethiopia’s Aung San Suu Kyi, and other dissidents perceived as enemies of the state, were locked up.

In 2002, British journalist Jonathan Dimbleby—who famously exposed the 1973 Ethiopian famine—travelled there to see for himself the progress the country had been making. His ensuing article, “Ethiopia Proves There Can Be Life after Death,” appeared on July 28, 2002 in the Observer, and quotes Mr. Zenawi as saying: “Africa’s downfall has always been the cult of the personality. And their names always seem to begin with M. We’ve had Mobutu and Mengistu and I’m not going to add Meles to the list.”

Today, Mr. Zenawi has comfortably joined the list he derided and despised. By the end of his new term, he will have ruled the poor nation that survives on food aid for a quarter of a century. For now, he has bought relative silence from the West by continuing to serve as a key ally in the war on terror. But in Ethiopia, totalitarian rule remains a serious act of terrorism that goes unchallenged. Ethiopia’s elections have turned out to be more embarrassing for its Western sponsors than their daredevil African ally, which shows no remorse over the death of democracy.

Mr. Gellaw is a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and its Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. Earlier this year, he was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.


  1. aha!
    | #1

    The outcome of a three-way thug of war/campaign ended with Mederk or the wuould be Tigrai-Harena/fdd/efdr with new teletafi parties has culminated with KAEUP leadership calling for a rerun of the elections for at least 11 reasons and Medrek leadership putting into question the election results and challenging it in court, through Prof. Beyene Petros, not Gebru Asrat the Chairman of the party, as the insider of the leader of one of the opposition parties with ethnic agenda. Medrek as party of the coalition of loyalist opposition parties inspite of the skirmishes with TPLF/eprdf regime as a rivalery between the lesser of two evils, with the same ethnic agenda has been wiped out of its electoral votes of KILLI’s and woreda’s, but fared well with distribution of the popular vote with TPLF/eprdf regime, possibly because of the influence of TPLF/eprdf supporters both abroad and in the country seeking the lesser of two evils, and the influence of UDJP supporters straddling between ethnic agenda and national agenda, that inclined to liberal ideology and democracy to enhance freedom of the individual as the source of democratic institutions. That did not happen with the lack of implemetation of the spirit of the Code of Conduct agreements and the implemntation of 8-point pre-conditions for free and fair election. What has been aired by EU-observer is the the absence of a level playing field. To that I add the ongoing tilt of the balance continues to towads the negative forces of disintegration, working against the unity, territorial integrity, sovvereignty of Ethiopia and Ethiopians, with no common goals to overpower the current regime, to say the least losing a seat in the parliament by the loyalist opposition leaders to raise their hands for a vote on legislature written by TPLF/eprdf regime, and a chance to voice their objections. There was no chance to win over the current regime, but to form a bicamreral chamber of parliament win/loose, which ended up as strictly TPLF/eprdf regime.

    To its credit Medrek has served as a spoliler for KAEUP in general and UDJP by joining Medrek has siphoned the votes in the Amahra and Tigrai for Medrek whose plat form is ethnic-based agenda. Nevertheless, the struggle to dismantle ethnic-boundries, ethnic federlasm and secessionism with liberal ideology and democracy as the major focus to set the individuals free to form a democratic society that elects a party that rules by the consent of the goverened.

  2. aha!
    | #2

    Add to last sentence of the last sentence pargrph, … “is an ongoing process”.

  3. Alelegn
    | #3


  4. mateos
    | #4

    African junior and sinior so called leaders have made so much fun and mockery of their people, country, and their masters; HOWEVER, nobody beats the junior sophisticated slave in Ethiopia. Ethiopians must unite against Mathza/Abebe/Meles and his boss Bereket as Ethiopia becomes the playground of the two stooges. Aiga jungle democracy must remain in the jungle of aiga!!!!

  5. aha!
    | #5

    Now, there is no ultimatum for joining or not joining the parliament, since that is swept by TPLF/eprdf regime. The only alternative for Medrek offocials is to take the consultative positions offered by the Prime minister pruruant to failure of legal recourse of the election out come, as he did not recommend an uprising and/or protest over the election, as an imlicity endorser of the Charter, embeded with ethnic agenda. It is like biting the hand that feed you: that the hand of the architecht of ethnic boundries, ethnic fedralism and secessionism.

  6. ሁሉም ቀን አለው
    | #6

    የማይነጋ መስሉዋት ; አ… በቁዋት አ..

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