Diplomats doubt Mengistu's plan for historic election

Thirteen years after the dethronement of Emperor Haile Selassie I, Ethiopia is set to hold nation-wide elections to end the Provisional Military Administrative Council that has governed the country since 1974. Announcing the creation of an electoral commission, Ethiopian President, Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, said the elections would be the final step toward establishing the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

The pending elections and a recently formulated Constitution, both in the Soviet mold, have stirred Western nations to reevaluate their foreign policy on Ethiopia.

No precise date has been fixed for the elections. Everyone from the age of 18 will be eligible to vote and, nationally, anyone over the age of 21 will be allowed to stand as a candidate - but only if first selected through a process involving institutions of the ``Marxist-Leninist'' Workers Party of Ethiopia (WPE). Thus, while the elections may be free, the decision about who will represent the people will - as in other communist societies - be controlled by the ruling party.

There are, according to domestic opposition groups and Western diplomats, serious doubts about the regime's ability to hold free elections throughout the country, large portions of which it does not control. The Tigr'e People's Liberation Front controls at least 80 percent of its territory. Eritrean guerrillas control a smaller part of their territory, but are able to disrupt life throughout most it. There is virtually no government machinery in the Denakil plains. At least four other areas of the country are under pressure from other rebel movements.

Colonel Mengistu's pledge that Ethiopians will have a chance to exercise their ``democratic rights'' for the first time in the country's history is further flawed by the role given to the elected National Assembly, say observers. The National Assembly, he says, will be responsible for ``safeguarding the revolution,'' whose purpose is to establish a Marxist-Leninist system within ``a people's democracy.''

Western policies toward Ethiopia have been based hitherto on two premises: that the regime's intimate ties with the Soviet Union are transitory - as they have been in the case of other developing nations; and that the best way of weaning Ethiopia away from Moscow is to continue to provide aid and maintain diplomatic ties.

As the Marxist structures in Ethiopia become more firmly entrenched and Mengistu strengthens his commitments to the Soviet camp, these earlier suppositions about developments in Ethiopia - and policies stemming from them - face more rigorous examination.

The European Community has for some time wondered how its considerable aid to Ethiopia can be used to influence the country's policies, particularly in respect to human rights.

Lynda Chalker, Britain's foreign minister of state responsible for Africa, recently returned from a visit to Ethiopia. While she was impressed by the good use to which British food and relief aid has been put, she is less inclined to accept the defense of the regime's resettlement policies and is disturbed by its human-rights practices.

No adequate re-evaluation of the situation in Ethiopia is possible unless it takes full account of the following realities:

Ethiopia is today more sharply divided than at any other period in its modern history - between the Amharic south and the largely non-Amharic north and, particularly, between the Shoan and non-Shoan communities. (The Shoans, as a dominant element in the Amharic society, have been the top leaders since the late 1800s.)

It's not possible for the regime to overcome the armed resistance it faces in Eritrea and Tigr'e, or to prevent armed challenges that are now emerging from three other insurgencies, despite its huge input of modern East-bloc arms.

It is not possible for the Eritreans, Tigreans, and others to defeat the regime. So long as their resistance is confined to their own regions all they can hope is to strengthen their hold in their regions, sap the military and economic strengths of the regime, and prevent it from consolidating its revolution.

Ethiopia's economy continues to flag and is likely to worsen so long as the security situation remains the regime's major preoccupation.

The regime lacks effective grassroots support. The revolution is still being waged from the top down, say recent defectors of top government posts.

Within the capital establishment, Mengistu enjoys considerable power and there are no effective opponents.

Human rights continue to be abused on a disturbing scale, according to Amnesty International, a London-based human-rights organization. Thousands of the regime's political opponents are in prison. Forced resettlement continues to be a feature of the regime's revolutionary agrarian policies.

The regime depends entirely on the support of the Army. While the Army still appears loyal, there is known to be discontent both in the ranks of officers and the rank and file. Defections from among Mengistu's ministers and ambassadors in the past year are indications that discontent also exists in the ranks of the regime.

A military coup could come from Soviet-supported elements dissatisfied with Mengistu's performance. An anti-communist coup is likely only if there is more evidence of Western and African opposition to the Mengistu regime, says a former senior military official.

The main strength of Mengistu and the major factor in delaying effective Western opposition to his regime is the absence of an organized national opposition movement. Obstacles to the formation of such a movement are the ethnic and regional divisions that exist among Mengistu's opponents. Not even the Eritreans and Tigreans - despite their committed struggle - have been able to form a united front.

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