Voters go to the polls in Ethiopia on Sunday with little doubt that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi will stay in power in sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous country, which he has ruled since 1991.
Rights groups allege that Meles has meticulously tightened his grip on the country and left the opposition with no chance against him at the polls.
The opposition scored its best results in 2005 and alleged afterwards that Meles’s regime stole the election, sparking violence that left 193 protesters and seven policemen dead.
Much of the focus of this year’s vote will simply be on how the polls are conducted.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has promised that the Horn of Africa’s fourth multiparty legislative elections would be free and fair.
But Human Rights Watch has charged that Meles has taken tough measures to avoid a repeat of the “mistakes” that nearly cost him victory in 2005.
“The Ethiopian government is waging a coordinated and sustained attack on political opponents, journalists, and rights activists ahead of the May 2010 elections,” the watchdog said in the run-up to the polls.
The country’s most inspirational opposition leader, Birtukan Mideksa — often dubbed “the Ethiopian Aung San Suu Kyi”, has been in detention since late 2008 for allegedly claiming she refused to seek a presidential pardon in the aftermath of the violent 2005 polls.
Challenging Meles’s 19-year-old rule will be the coalition Medrek (“forum” in Amharic), which stands for the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Forum and groups eight opposition parties representing several ethnic groups.
One of its main leaders is Merera Gudina, whose Oromo People’s Congress party seeks more autonomy for the southern Oromiya region, a hub of opposition to Meles that has seen the bulk of pre-electoral violence.
“If we win, we intend to form a national unity government for the five coming years,” said Beyene Petros, the current rotating chairperson of Medrek.
The electoral campaign was relatively calm, although main rivals traded accusations over political assassinations: the opposition charged three of its supporters were killed by EPRDF henchmen while the regime accused Medrek of killing a policeman.
Weak and divided
Observers argue that the opposition, despite joining forces under the Medrek umbrella, remains weak and divided and has not recovered from the repression that followed the 2005 post-electoral unrest.
“The leadership of the Forum rotates every few months, and even so, they lack the charisma of Birtukan and have not been able to capture the imagination of the citizens,” an Addis Ababa University politics professor said on condition of anonymity.
Meles has campaigned on the achievements of his previous tenure and his ambitious plans to develop infrastructure and turn the country into a regional economic powerhouse.
Economic growth is still in double digits, inflation has been brought under control and exports are on the rise.
While Meles’s human rights record has come under criticism, some of his partners see him as a strong “realist” leader who can guide the vast country out of poverty.
Foreign criticism of the regime’s authoritarianism has been muted, notably because Meles — whose country borders Eritrea and Somalia — remains a key US and Western ally in the fight against Islamic extremism.
“It’s great thing if there are several opposition parties, but when it comes to the long-term stability of the country and the region, Meles is still your best bet,” one Addis-based diplomat said.
Domestically, while the regime’s popularity is questionable, it is likely seen as less authoritarian than its predecessors.
Out of a population of more than 80-million, nearly 32-million Ethiopians are registered for Sunday’s vote, which will be monitored by the European Union and African Union.
Voters will elect the 547-strong lower House of Representatives and regional councillors, who in turn will elect the upper chamber of parliament. — AFP