Ethiopia’s political landscape worrying – Nation midia, By Michael Deibert

June 29th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

When it was announced last month that the ruling party of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had swept local polls in this vast Horn of Africa nation, few expressed surprise.

Zenawi’s Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition was declared by the country’s national electoral board to have won 559 districts in the kebele and woreda divisions of local government and all but one of 39 parliament seats contested in the by-election. (more…)

When it was announced last month that the ruling party of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had swept local polls in this vast Horn of Africa nation, few expressed surprise.

Zenawi’s Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition was declared by the country’s national electoral board to have won 559 districts in the kebele and woreda divisions of local government and all but one of 39 parliament seats contested in the by-election.

Out of a total of 26 million registered voters, the electoral board claimed that 24.5 million, or 93 per cent, voted.

April’s ballot was the first chance for the EPRDF to flex the muscles of its electoral machinery since General election in May 2005. Though early returns that year suggested an electoral triumph for the country’s two main opposition parties, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF). Prime Minister Zenawi declared a state of emergency before final results were announced.

In the unrest that followed, hundreds of people were arrested and at least 200 killed by Ethiopian security forces. Official results — not released until September — gave 59 per cent of the total vote to the EPRDF.

Cries of fraud stained the reputation of one of Washington’s closest African allies, to whom, according to US defense department figures, the Bush administration sold $6 million worth of weapons to in 2006, more armaments than went to any other African country. The weapons are used in part to aid Ethiopia in its war against Islamic militants based in neighbouring Somalia, which Ethiopia invaded in late 2006 and where it remains involved in active combat.

SOME OBSERVERS CONTEND THAT THIS year’s ballot was even more compromised than the 2005 vote. With an estimated 3.6 million posts up for election, Ethiopia’s opposition parties were only able to register some 16,000 candidates due to obstacles placed in their path by the country’s electoral council.

In response, the UEDF, now the largest opposition party in Ethiopia’s parliament, and the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) — a political party claiming to represent the interests of the Oromo ethnic group (Ethiopia’s largest) — both boycotted the final round of voting.

The situation of the Oromo people — who form the majority in Ethiopia’s largest and most populous state, Oromia — is but one of the thorny politico-ethnic quandaries confronting Ethiopia’s ruling party today.

Amid such internal dissent, several areas of the country are currently on the brink of famine, with the World Food Programme currently estimating that, of Ethiopia’s 80 million citizens, 3.4 million will need emergency food relief from July to September, a number that comes in addition to the eight million currently receiving assistance.

GIVEN SUCH A VOLATILE POLITICAL landscape, some observers have looked upon the EPRDF’s crushing victory in the polls in an extremely circumspect manner.

“The complete lack of any semblance of organised opposition in most of the country reflects how difficult it is in Ethiopia for dissenting voices to emerge without facing a huge level of harassment,” says Chris Albin-Lackey, senior researcher with the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.

Albin-Lackey says that he regards the April ballot as “a stark illustration of just how far Ethiopia’s political space has been closed off since the limited opening that preceded that 2005 polls.”

The EPRDF has governed Ethiopia since 1991, when in its initial incarnation as a rebel army, it succeeded in ousting the violent Marxist military junta known as the Derg that had ruled the country since 1974.

Another source of concern to observers is the Ethiopian government’s “Charities and Societies Proclamation.” The proposed law seeks to strip domestic civil society organisation of access to foreign funding by defining a “foreign” organisation operating in the country as any body that receives more than 10 per cent of its funding from abroad or has any members who are foreign nationals.

Such “foreign” bodies are also thus barred from addressing such issues as human rights and governance in their work. Any foreign human-rights organisation seeking to conduct research in Ethiopia would have to obtain the written permission of the government.

Heavy fines and prison terms are mandated for those who contravene the new law, which bears more than a passing similarity to a draconian law overseeing civil society organisations passed by the government of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in 2004.

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