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No change expected in Ethiopian elections

Ludger Schadomsky / shMay 22, 2015

Ethiopia's EPRDF coalition is expected to win another landslide victory on Sunday, cementing its long hold on power. But opposition politicians say it is important to put up a fight. Times are slowly changing, they say.

A hand puts a voting paper in the ballot box in this picture by the National Electoral Commission
Image: DW/E. Bekele

The Semayawi party is Ethiopia's youngest and boldest opposition party. Its founders were inspired by the political upheavals of the so-called Arab Spring. Semayawi is the Amharic word for "blue." The color symbolizes hope - in a country where the Blue Nile has its source.

And out of the blue, the party has succeeded in mobilizing thousands of people to take part in peaceful demonstrations, despite the presence of the feared security forces. Why is the Semayawi party so attractive? "Many political leaders, be they in the government or opposition, look at politics from an ethnocentric perspective," Semayawi's general secretary Yilkal Getnet told DW. "But we are a country of youth, nearly 70 percent of the population is below 35 years of age. This youthful population needs to be represented in the Ethiopian political arena. We need a new style of political argument that is vibrant and action-oriented."

The declared aim of the ‘blues' to make politics more transparent has led to them being welcomed with open arms, especially by Ethiopia's young voters in the capital Addis Ababa who feel they are not benefitting from the country's economic upswing.

Blue-clad demonstrators in Addis Ababa
A 'blue' demonstration in Addis AbabaImage: DW/Y. G/Egziabher

Economy booms but politics lags behind

By 2025, Ethiopia intends to join the group of "Middle Income Countries" (MICs) which would put it on a level with countries such as Egypt and China. That is the aim of the ambitious Soviet-inspired five-year growth plans decreed by the all-powerful politburo of the ruling EPRDF four-party coalition, which has been in power since 1991.

In the capital Addis Ababa skyscrapers are shooting up and long queues in the shopping district Bole bear witness to the purchasing power of a growing middle class. But while the government celebrates the inauguration of a new light railway that cost 30 million euros ($34 million), the majority of the city's four million residents are wondering where they will find the money to buy a ticket.

Exploding daily costs, a severe housing shortage and high unemployment combine to make Ethiopia's younger generation doubtful about the sustainability of the boom.

Unlike the economy and the growing geostrategical importance of the self-proclaimed hegemonial power on the Horn of Africa, the process of greater political transparency is moving in the opposite direction. Nowhere in Africa are more journalists behind bars, and on the list of the ten countries where censorship is strongest, Ethiopia ranks fourth.

The anniversary of the arrest of the "Zone 9 bloggers" has just passed. The group comprises six online journalists who used their blogs to draw attention to social and political shortcomings in their country. They face the prospect of long prison sentences under Ethiopa's draconian anti-terror laws.

A tram on the track in Addis
The new tramline in Addis is hailed as a sign of progressImage: DW/Y. Gebreegziabher

"There has clearly been economic progress in Ethiopia, but on the other side there is a strongly repressive government that is very much intent on destroying everything that is critical, including opposition politicians, journalists, bloggers, community leaders," says Awol Allo who is conducting research into human rights in Ethiopia at the London School of Economics.

The European Union, which has traditionally been an important development partner for Ethiopia, shares this view. Ana Gomes led the EU observer mission during the 2005 elections, which were overshadowed by the deaths of almost 200 demonstrators. Today she is a Social Democrat member of the European Parliament. “We decided that we should not go to rubber stamp elections that we know are going to be fake,” Gomes said. “I know that the Ethiopian government is saying that the EU did not come this time because of a lack of financial resources. This is totally not true,” Gomes told DW.

Less than 100 percent

When Ethiopia's 35 million registered voters go to the polls on Sunday to choose which candidates from 57 parties should be part of the new parliament and 11 regional assemblies, it is a foregone conclusion that the EPRDF will emerge victorious. A look at the distribution of seats in the present parliament makes this abundantly clear. Of 547 seats, just one is occupied by an opposition politician, Girma Seifu. However he says he does not intend to run again. "Unfortunately I could do little during the last five years, because the government is not willing to accommodate multi-party democracy," he said. "Rather the government intentionally takes time to demolish parties and sometimes creates splinter groups within the parties." There are some problems within the opposition, Seifu concedes, “but these problems have been aggravated by the ruling party."

At the last elections in 2005, the EPRDF garnered 99.6 percent of votes.

The AU headquarters, one of many skyscrapers in Addis Ababa
The AU headquarters is now a familiar sight on the skyline of Addis AbabaImage: AFP/Getty Images/J. Vaughan

The color of hope

But even without Girma Seifu, the Semayawi party is hoping to bring about some change. Three years ago when the first demonstrators, clad in blue jeans and blue T-shirts, marched through Addis Ababa, the security forces looked on in amusement. But now the wind has changed, the party's attraction has grown and so has the nervousness of the security apparatus. The blue party says more than 50 members have been arrested during the run-up to the elections, and candidates have had their names removed from the ballot papers by the electoral commission NEBE. The commission rejects these claims and accuses the Semayawi party of failing to observe electoral legislation.

In the meantime, Semyawi has withdrawn its threat to boycott the elections. "We have no political space, we know we are in a police state and under an absolute dictatorship but it is more important to be engaged than to boycott the elections,” General Secretary Getnet said.

That message seems to have been heard by Ethiopa's young voters. "We have no democracy in our country," said a young man from Ethiopia's second largest city Dire Dawa, "but there are signs that people are beginning to demand their rights. And who knows? Perhaps there could even be a situation like in Nigeria where after the election President Goodluck Jonathan congratulated his challenger Muhammadu Buhari on his victory."

The years of political apathy in Ethiopia may be coming to an end.