Ethiopia's messy political reform

The African nation anxiously awaits a July 8 report on allegations of vote-rigging in 135 regions.

The Ethiopian elections last month were supposed to solidify the country's move toward democracy. The ruling party held on to power, but opposition parties made huge gains in parliament. Election monitors, including former US President Jimmy Carter, hailed the vote as the freest and fairest in this nation's history.

But postelection violence has tarnished the initial luster of political progress - and the nation tensely awaits the results of an investigation into vote rigging.

Even before the polls closed on May 15, opposition leaders were crying foul, alleging widespread election fraud by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's supporters. By the next day, Mr. Zenawi had banned political demonstrations during the vote count. Protests were met with police bullets. As many as 36 people were killed during riots in the highland capital Addis Ababa in early June.

"The government's capacity to manage normal and legal forms of dissent have proved to be nonexistent," says Medhane Tadesse, a political analyst in Addis Ababa and a columnist for the Sub-Saharan Informer, a weekly newspaper here. "As the regime comes under increasing internal criticism, it appears to be abandoning any reconciliatory approach in favor of a more rigid and repressive stance."

About 3,000 people were thrown in jail during the protests. All but 400 were released this past Thursday and Friday, after international pressure and prison visits by US, Irish, and Swiss diplomats.

Just a few years ago, President Bill Clinton said Zenawi, a former rebel soldier who ousted dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, was part of a "new generation of leaders."

Some Western diplomats in Addis call the university graduate with a master's degree in economics a "visionary thinker," and he is one of only two African leaders appointed to Tony Blair's Commission for Africa.

But despite recent progress, Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries on the world's poorest continent. It has a history of dictatorship and coups, and its leaders have often favored their own tribes, families, and friends.

While Zenawi is credited with bringing a greater sense of democracy and openness here, last month's election revealed a nation still struggling to break free from its dictatorial and tribal past.

"We are no longer ignorant like the people in the fields. We read the newspapers and watch the television, and we know we can vote freely," says Samuel Asafa, a shoe-repairer squatting by his tiny cupboard-sized workshop. His views echo the fury privately expressed by many in Addis, where the opposition coalition won every seat. "Then ... the government turns and changes the results so they stay in power and the people we voted for are the losers."

While life in Addis is now back to normal, there remains a tension in the city as Ethiopians wait for the results of investigations into disputed ballots. Provisional results showed the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) held on to power by winning more than 300 seats in the 547-seat parliament. The opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) made unprecedented gains, winning 189 seats - a substantial increase over its previous tally of 12. But the CUD said there were electoral violations in 299 constituencies. The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia has agreed to investigate 135. The outcome of the investigations are expected by July 8.

Tribal politics play an important role in national politics. Zenawi comes from a relatively small ethnic group from Tigray, in northeast Ethiopia. He has had difficulty retaining political control in the face of opposition from the much larger Oromo and other tribal groups. Ethiopians from other ethnic groups claim that Tigray has prospered while the rest of the country has suffered.

"Parliamentary elections in 1995 and 2000 ... were carefully orchestrated to ensure a ruling-party victory, and we accepted invitations to observe this election after the prospects seemed much more democratic," said former US president Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Center formed a key part of the international observer mission for this year's poll. A transparent vote count and therefore an entirely fair result would have been a "quantum move forward in democratization for Ethiopia," Carter said.

But when outrage grew at the perceived irregularities in the count, Zenawi and his supporters fell back on strong-arm tactics. "This kind of thing has been going on for 10 years, but only made the headlines this time because so many international observers were in Ethiopia for the elections," says Cedric Barnes, Horn of Africa specialist at the University of London. "There are people within Zenawi's party and his security apparatus who do have a certain amount of discretion and a lot of these people grew up at war in the bush. They are more than likely behind this reaction to dissent."

He adds that "while there are problems with Ethiopia's human rights record, and cronyism which means economic benefits don't always go to everyone, Zenawi deserves credit for holding the whole thing together and making at least some progress."

Roads which used to be dirt tracks are now paved, cutting transport time from farmer's fields to markets. More children are in school, with more school books and more teachers teaching them. Mobile phone base stations have sprung up above mud and thatch huts, bringing local businessmen closer.

There's concern that the June 6 crackdown signals Ethiopia's slide away from its recent reformist moves. But Mr. Barnes remains optimistic. "This is an emerging and immature democracy, but one which is showing signs of growing up as good as any on the continent, and Zenawi should be given the chance to continue to prove himself," he says. "The fact that he is slightly beholden to some less modern elements within his party could be the only stumbling block."

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