In repressive Ethiopia, new 'Blue Party' struggles to offer a choice

With 1,000 Ethiopian laborers being sent home daily from Saudi Arabia, the opposition party is channeling popular outrage. 

Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters
Ethiopian workers walk with their luggage as they wait with their countrymen to be repatriated in Manfouha, southern Riyadh, November 11, 2013. Last week the new 'Blue Party' tried to organize a protest outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Addis Ababa, feeding off widespread public outcry over the treatment of Ethiopian migrants and laborers in the Saudi kingdom.

Ethiopia is a definite success story in expert opinion about post-cold war Africa. The civil strife that wreaked havoc and made headlines in the 1980s has disappeared. Investments in roads, health, education, and water have improved the daily life of millions.

Yet Ethiopia’s ruling coalition seems intent on maintaining a tight grip on power until its project to transform Africa's second-most populous nation into a middle-income country is complete.

That authoritarian control makes any opposition difficult – though of late a group called the Blue Party, made up of young Ethiopians who describe themselves as progressive, have attempted to move, if not shake, the nation’s politics in ways not seen here for a decade or more.

Last week the Blue Party tried to organize a protest outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Addis Ababa, feeding off widespread public outcry over the treatment of Ethiopian migrants and laborers in the Saudi kingdom. Some 1,000 Ethiopians a day are being deported back home and migrant clashes with police in Riyadh are hitting social media here.

Still, instead of allowing Ethiopians to demonstrate their anger, the government forcefully broke up the protest, upsetting even those normally supportive of the government.

What remains unclear is how much repression the rising educated middle class in cities is willing to ignore in the Horn of Africa regime.

Ethiopia enacted a liberal constitution in 1994 that promised a free press, autonomy for some 80 ethnic groups, and multi-party politics. Yet dissenting journalists have still been jailed, minority groups complain of oppression, and elections are uncompetitive.

In the last vote in 2010, out of 547 seats in parliament, the opposition won one.

Ethiopia has been governed by the multi-ethnic Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front since 1991, when rebel groups overthrew a military regime. 

In 2005, the opposition, led by a group called the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, won 173 seats in the first competitive election. But months later some 200 people were killed by police when the opposition protested the outcome was rigged. Opposition leaders were jailed en masse.

But now there is some resurgence of opposition against the ruling (EPRDF) coalition.

The Blue Party held the first large demonstration by a political party since 2005 in July, when several thousand supporters marched in downtown Addis Ababa. They demanded the release of jailed politicians and journalists, as well as action against corruption, unemployment and inflation. 

Another more established opposition group peeking its head out of the bunker is the Unity for Democracy and Justice. UDJ held a moderately successful demonstration in the capital as part of a “Million Voices for Freedom” campaign. They demanded the release of "political prisoners" and the repeal of the anti-terrorism law used to convict them.

With new voices now emerging the government is taking a two-track approach: Last month Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said that multi-party democracy is constitutionally protected and that his administration wants a "constructive, progressive, opposition."

Yet he issued a warning: If opposition parties mix with banned groups, they will be prosecuted. "Anyone who plays with the fire, then that fire will burn them," Mr. Hailemariam said.

And there is evidence little has actually changed: Both the Blue Party and UDJ complain of harassment, with offices raided, members arrested and police arbitrarily preventing activities such as distributing leaflets.

Still, Blue Party leader Yilkal Getnet, in his thirties, believes his party will win a majority of the vote in 2015. He is counting on young people that want more freedom and want to move past the divisive ethnic politics of the past and embrace national unity. Mr. Yilkal also thinks another bleary and non-competitive election will lead to increased frustration and instability.

Merera Gudina is a leading member of the Oromo Federalist Congress. The Oromo are Ethiopia's most populous ethnic group and frequently allege that they have remained excluded from power under EPRDF rule.

Mr. Merera has raised funds in the US but thinks the Blue Party optimism is misplaced. He digs out a cardboard box from beneath his desk at Addis Ababa University, where he is a political scientist, and shows an uncounted ballot from 2010 elections. He says that thousands of votes for the opposition were discarded by the ruling party cadres.

But Merera allows that if the ruling coalition does a fair election they may suffer a shock greater than 2005.

 "If they open up they are going to lose easily in less than one month of campaigning," he says.

There are latent frustrations brewing in the current dynamic in Ethiopia, analysts feel, where construction profits are accruing to a corrupt elite tied to the ruling party -- while the cost of living for the masses rises.

"Even if they open a small window they know there's going to be a repeat of 2005," one senior analyst who could not be named, argues.

Merera says Ethiopia's political stagnation is also due to divided challengers that can't agree on a "common agenda," a analysis detailed in book “Ethiopia: From Autocracy to Revolutionary Democracy, 1960s to 2011.”

In Ethiopia, parties only emerged after the downfall of absolute monarch Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and they have primarily been vehicles either for rivalry between traditional ethnic elites, or among different Marxist revolutionaries. "Sectarianism, conspiracy and political intrigues have become the hallmark of the Ethiopian political parties and their leaders," leading to public disillusion, Merera writes.

Ethnicity is a key fault-line among the nascent opposition. Oromo activists argue that in practice, the focus on national unity or universal values by the likes of the Blue Party will bring more of the exploitation that Ethiopia's minorities historically experienced at the hands of traditional rulers.

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