ETHIOPIA'S experiment in moving from years of dictatorship to democracy is in trouble.
Decisions in the past week by the second largest political party to boycott Sunday's regional elections, withdraw from the coalition government, and reactivate its troops have led Western diplomats and Ethiopian politicians to warn that this Horn of Africa nation could be sliding back toward civil war.
"The government cannot allow armed factions to disrupt the peace and tranquility of the nation," President Meles Zenawi told reporters late Wednesday. "They must be checked."
"Things are tense," says a United States State Department official in Washington.
The ambassabors of the US, Canada, Britain, and Sweden met with United Nations and European Community representatives on Wednesday, and planned to tour troubled areas of the country in hopes of developing strategies to prevent a return to civil war.
Tuesday's withdrawal from the government of the Oromo Liberation Front followed OLF charges that the government rigged Sunday's nationwide elections for local officials. Three other smaller factions also stayed away from the polls.
Those elections were the first in a series aimed at bringing Ethiopia its first-ever democratic national government by the end of 1993. According to an official with the American Embassy in Addis Ababa, the capital, "there were places where it went fairly well - free and fair, and places where it wasn't - in parts of the south."
Results will not be known for several days, due to hand counting and the remoteness of many polling places.
Thirteen months ago the Tigrean-led Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) pushed down from the north to overthrow dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had ruled Ethiopia for 17 years amid sustained civil war and government human rights abuses.
In an effort to recognize Ethiopia's ethnic diversity, EPRDF leader Zenawi established a transitional coalition government consisting of 30 political parties and a federal system of 14 ethnic-based states.
The year since Mengistu's overthrow, however, has been marked by violence in the southeast between the EPRDF-led government and the Oromos, who constitute about 40 percent of the population, or 20 million people.
ZENAWI said new clashes between the two sides have erupted in three areas since the OLF withdraw. EPRDF Teklu Nagash Each claims the OLF laid mines in roads and used other violence to block campaign efforts by non-OLF candidates, fearing defeat by a rival group, the Oromo People's Democratic Organization. Both the OPDO and the OLF draw from the same ethnic base - the Oromo tribe.
The current clashes, a Western diplomat says, may stem from the OLF decision to allow their troops out of camps to which they had agreed to confine them prior to Sunday's election.
Government troops were also confined by the same agreement. But the government insisted on allowing some government troops to patrol the contested areas, primarily in the southeast, in their role as the national army and peacekeeper.
OLF and government officials accuse each other of a range of pre-election violence, including prohibiting candidates from campaigning, closing election offices, and jailing and killing each other's supporters.
Each ethnic group, and its rebel or political party, had the right to "to preach independence ... or preach unity" for their region, Mr. Teklu said. The OLF never "accepted to resolve their differences democratically."
"From Day 1, [EPRDF's] program was one of imposing their own program ... taking over the whole of Ethiopia and recasting it according to their wishes," claims Taha Abdi, OLF foreign relations officer in London.
Nonetheless, both sides express hope that the conflicts will not spread to a national level. The "pullout shouldn't provoke any fighting," says Mohammed Kitesa, an OLF foreign affairs official. "The ball is in the court of the [government]."
"Anything is possible," says a Western diplomat, adding that civil war may be unlikely because "the OLF is not that strong."
As to whether Ethiopia's experiment in ethnic democracy eventually will work, "it's too early to make any judgments," the diplomat adds.