Ethiopia's election: all losers

The crushing electoral defeat of the Ethiopian opposition does not actually help the ruling party and encourages its slide into authoritarianism

‘I really feel totally betrayed by the system,’ confessed Beyene Petros, one of the most respected leaders of the Ethiopian opposition, a few days after its crushing defeat in the general elections on 23 May 2010. ‘I thought that, if we competed in the elections, there would be a door ajar that could be made use of by competing parties. This assumption of mine was totally misplaced.’

But how could he have been so mistaken? Like most of the opposition, how could he have expected that the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the ruling party since 1991, would faithfully play the electoral game and run the risk of repeating the surprise scenario of the 2005 elections, where the opposition made such spectacular progress? How could he even imply, a few days later, that the voters voted for the opposition in the election and that cheating only defeated it? And what a defeat! 99.6% of the vote, just one opposition representative out of 547 elected members of the federal Parliament and just one out of the 1900 regional assembly representatives. In a nutshell: how and why did the Ethiopian opposition make such a mistake about its electoral chances, as if it had not fully realized that the EPRDF had systematically and implacably started immediately after its 2005 electoral blow to make sure it would win in 2010, at any price?

‘Whatever policy differences there might be among the opposition, I think we agree on the minimum issues of democracy and rule of law.’ This appeal from opposition leader, Seye Abraha, calls on the opposition to unite in order to recover from its defeat. Most commentators credit it with its disarray, which they see as aggravated by internal conflict and the lack of coherence in its policies but these explanations do not stand up to scrutiny.


In 2005, apart from its common hostility to those in power since 1991 and a shared desire for democratic change, the opposition was divided into two main camps: the Coalition for Unity and Democracy and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces. They also differed on some essential points, left-overs of a persistent divide, inherited from the conquests of the Abyssinian Empire in the second half of the 19th century. Schematically, the electoral base of the Coalition was urban, led by Addis-Ababa, and northern, with the Amhara (26% of the population), the epicentre of the old imperial power. The UEDF found its support in the former conquered territories, among the Oromos (37% of the population) and the peoples of the South. The CUD and the UEDF both criticised the EPRDF’s policies on the two main problems confronting Ethiopia for decades – the ‘national question’ or how the 80 ‘nations, nationalities and peoples’ of Ethiopia could agree on a modus vivendi and poverty issues – but they disagreed on the solutions. The ruling Party has set up a federal system, with equal rights for all ‘ethnic groups’ as the basis for the “revolutionary democracy” it advocates, with individual rights taking a back seat. But this federalism is a smokescreen behind which Tigreans (6% of the population) held the reins of power, even in all the ‘non traditional’ sectors of the economy. The Coalition advocated a form of recentralisation borne by an ‘Ethiopianism’ that was supposed transcend ethnic differences while the UEDF advocated a genuine ethnic federalism to be implemented. The economic strategy of the EPRDF focused on the land which is the economic base of Ethiopia and public property, in which peasants – 83% of the population – have only temporary usage rights and more precisely, on the masses of subsistence farmers. The CUD quite simply wanted to privatise the land, to ‘liberate’ the peasantry from Party-State’s grip; the UEDF, however, was radically opposed, fearing that it would open the door to northern investors to corner the market of southern land once again.

In 2010, the main opposition force, the Medrek (Forum), had a support base extending over almost all the country, with the notable exception of the Amhara region. On paper at least, its eight components had reached a common position on the ‘national question’ and on the issue of land. Thus, the gulf that separated 2005 when the opposition had drawn with the governing party in the elections with the extent that the governing party was forced to cheat to ensure a comfortable official victory, the 2010 defeat cannot be explained by an intrinsic weakening of the opposition.

The second reason most often put forward to explain the ‘landslide victory’ of the EPRDF is the undeniable intensification of its authoritarianism. This led to ‘the lack of a level playing field for all contesting parties,’ according to the European Union Observation Mission. But several opposition leaders and commentators have only taken this into account within certain limits, i.e. when and where they themselves or their own milieu were directly affected by it. In social terms this means urban dwellers and more precisely the thin slice of them that makes up ‘civil society’. In temporal terms, it means during the two years in the run-up to the elections and during the electoral campaign, when the government stepped up its control even further. Once again, the opposition succumbed to that almost systematic tropism of the Ethiopian elite – navel-gazing, which led it to distance itself from the ‘real country,’ for which it has a kind of ‘blind spot’, starting with the rural areas, where 83% of the population and therefore 83% of voters live.

So, it was on the three recent ‘villainous’ laws on information, NGOs and the fight against terrorism that they concentrated their denunciation of the regime’s shift towards increased authoritarianism. The media have almost no direct influence in the rural areas as there are no circulating newspapers. Very few people have a radio that works and those who do shamelessly confess that ‘political debates are not for us, we don’t understand what they are talking about.’ The only local NGOs are traditional community organisations run on age-old lines. So the anti-terrorist law has no effect here. Since time immemorial an official can punish any of those under his authority, even throwing him in jail, unless he has some form of special protection.


Similarly, while opposition campaigners were undeniably harassed during the elections, this had little real effect in rural areas, for the simple reason that, even if they had tried to campaign there, no-one would have listened to them, to the point of trying to avoid them altogether.

For at least two thirds of the peasant population, an election simply has no meaning. They have a vision of the world where absolutely everything is determined by divine will, including who is in power. They feel they have no right to choose. As they often say: ‘God only decides who rules,’ so an election is futile. Above all, it presents one major danger: voting for the loser. The winner will find out even though the ballot is secret, the election winner has mysterious ways of knowing how each person voted. It could then take revenge on the ‘culprits’ which means putting no less than their survival at risk. This is because all public services, from education to fertiliser, from health care to loans, depend on the good will of local officials of the Party-State, up to and including access to the peasant farmer’s only means of production – land. The only electoral challenge, then, is to try to figure out who is going to win and to slide the ‘right’ ballot into the box. To find this out, one can only turn to the ‘opinion leaders’ of the peasant community, in other words, its elite and then all vote the same way. That way, even if they get it wrong, there is safety in numbers – ‘it’s easier to punish one individual than a whole community.’


The elite have generally developed a more secular vision and therefore have started to claim for citizen’s rights. Thus it feels entitled in choosing the country’s leaders. In 2005, where these elite’s members opposed the ruling regime for many and several reasons – in most rural areas at least – they were easily able to persuade people to vote against it, especially given that they could put forward tangible arguments for forecasting its defeat.


But just a few months after the elections, they were already disenchanted. The most visible opposition members were arrested while other opposition representatives were either totally powerless or even simply physically absent. ‘We voted for the opposition in 2005 and we got nothing from it,’ said these opinion leaders. ‘On the contrary, we suffered the wrath of the authorities.’ For them, ‘the 2005 elections taught us, above all, that however we vote, in the end the ruling power always wins.’ On the evidence that they had nothing to gain from joining the opposition except from being targets of harassment, these elite confided that ‘we remain strong opponents, but only in the remotest corner of our backyard.’ And the measures that the ruling party were to take in the following years, particularly 2006 to 2008, such as forced enrolment of this elite into the Party (see below), would only confirm this position. They repeatedly said it years before the electoral campaigns started – ‘we will not be campaigning for the opposition and will not even vote for them.’ Even supposing that the opposition had more ways and the elbow room to make itself heard, the ‘lesson’ of the 2005 elections as well as an omnipresent fear, would, in any event, have deprived it of the rural activists it needed to capture a decent share of the vote in the countryside.

Given the weight of the peasant vote, defeat was inevitable from as early as Autumn 2005. But the debacle only started to emerge in the last two years before the elections especially during the electoral campaign, when the urban voters, traditionally the bastion of the opposition, progressively adopted the same reasoning as those living in the countryside – that is, that they would have nothing to gain by voting for the opposition but a great deal to lose. The repression of criticism, muffling of civil society and finally, the incredible pressure that the EPRDF put on voters, all had an effect. But the opposition seems also to have underestimated a decisive factor that led to the loss of its urban support: the political shift in the ruling Party, intensified after 2005 and the concomitant multiplication by seven in its membership (from 700,000 in 2005 to 5 million today or around one in seven of the adult population).

Very schematically and in line with its original Marxist-Leninist leanings, it saw itself as the small elite – the self-proclaimed avant-garde – with the right and duty to direct the ‘development’ of the ‘broad masses’, which meant the mass of peasant farmers to lead them out of their incredible misery. In the same ‘socialist’ vein, it reined in private businesses. But some years ago, this ‘pro-poor policy’ gradually disappeared in the face of a form of development where the ‘developmentalist state’ continues to play a central role but essentially to benefit the ‘constructive investors’ to order to promote their entry into a ‘market economy’. It is these people that the Party has enrolled en masse, be it urban small entrepreneurs, intellectuals or especially, those very same, more dynamic farmers, all those who had provided the vast battalions for the opposition by rejecting the authoritarianism of the ruling party and its obstruction to their economic and social advancement. This membership is either purely utilitarian – ‘I am joining the Party because it will reward me in return’ or more often obligatory, where the Party forces the leading social and economic players to join. In a few words, the hard core of the EPRDF which once focused on the “toiling masses,” is now formulating its new political basis on an emerging middle class by promoting its advancement and by enrolling its members at the Party’s periphery. As a result, these former opponents have either actually been rallied round or at least politically neutralised. The opposition, therefore, lost most of its fighting forces and its ‘opinion leaders’, who brought with them the bulk of the electorate.

While it was, then, inevitable that the opposition would be heavily defeated, no-one expected it to be wiped out. This provoked just as much surprise as its massive push in 2005. When the Prime-Minister, Meles Zenawi declared that he expected to get ‘50% to 75% of the vote” and that “we neither projected nor expected to get 99%,’ they confirmed their vision of the electoral challenge facing them. This translated as a clear win over the opposition as well as making up for their humiliation in 2005, but via a sufficiently ‘clean’ election, at least on the surface, to avoid violent reaction by the people, as in 2005, to get the opposition to ratify the results and finally and above all to provide donors with the argument they had been lacking up until then, to justify their full backing of the regime: it would finally have gained a democratic legitimacy through the ballot box.

If, for the time being there is nothing to indicate that troubles like those of 2005 might break out – people have not forgotten the 200 demonstrators who lost their lives and the 30,000 members of the opposition who were arrested – the electoral plan of Meles Zenawi is in 2010 a failure just as it was in 2005. The reason is, once again, the disconnect between the party leaders and its apparatus, despite its rigid, ‘Leninist’ form of hierarchical management. In 2005, the local ‘cadres’ had tried in vain to alert the top leadership of the growing opposition in order to contain its push and to this end to throw the EPRDF in the electoral battle. But these appeals never reached the ears of the leadership, not least because of its blind confidence in victory. They only realised the danger a month before Election Day and the Party-State’s counter-offensive, from top to bottom, and from one day to the next, came too late not to have to resort to vote-rigging in order to win. In 2010, the party’s apparatus went much beyond the original intentions of its leadership. They set out on a frenetic local campaign of one-upmanship, probably motivated by their humiliating defeat in 2005 and with the particular aim of showing their superiors that they were even more zealous than their colleagues next door. They therefore over-reacted by over-pressuring the voters, which European Union observers did not fail to note and even with flagrant vote rigging, which could be noticed in the EU final report. Hence the 99.6% return which is so improbable that it makes the regime look ridiculous, even, it seems, discrediting the Party in the eyes of some of its own core members and once and for all negates any ambition it may have had of being seen as ‘democratising.’ As a result, the EPRDF did not have a ‘landslide victory’ so much as a serious defeat.

Despite the pressure and event threats from the government, the main opposition force continues to contest the election results. It also wonders whether their single representative should join Parliament or not, so as to refuse to legitimise the de facto reign of a single party. The USA, stalwart ally of Ethiopia, went further than ever by declaring that the elections did not meet ‘international standards’. The foreign press is of one voice in its judgement that the regime is authoritarian, if not totalitarian and even goes as far as comparing it to that of Mengistu Haile Mariam, leader of the communist-military junta overthrown by Meles – in both cases, ‘the state and the ruling party are one and the same’ (Wall Street Journal). The setback is so obvious that the demonstration held in Addis-Ababa by the EPRDF to celebrate its ‘victory’ aimed in fact to demonstrate that Ethiopians ‘have rejected election meddling by western powers under the guise of human rights.’

But all the signs are that this cooling in relations with the donors will not have a long-term impact. While they are openly critical of the elections, they have never put into question the pursuit of their aid. Following the 2005 elections they had suspended part of it, only to reinstate it and even increase it a few months later, with just a change to its distribution network. Ethiopia is the perfect illustration that those receiving aid are not necessarily obliged to those giving it but rather the reverse. They would find it hard to justify to their public opinion a suppression of aid on political grounds, while Meles, on the contrary, can reject any imposed conditions in the name of the ‘sovereignty’ of the country. Finally, and above all, he knows that the West see him as the sole guarantee of stability in Ethiopia, which is at the core of a Horn of Africa in the throes of innumerable conflicts, as well as being their inescapable ally in the ‘fight against terrorism,’ which is their strategic priority for the entire region.

Nevertheless, this forced electoral takeover will weigh heavily on the country’s internal development. The extra-parliamentary opposition sees in the 2010 election one more proof that any form of democratic contest would be meaningless, the only remaining option being the armed struggle. But the chances of such an uprising being successful are still as slight as ever, either because of the persistent weakness of its leadership (Oromo Liberation Front), or because a core leadership still has not found the leverage to mobilise a peasant army (Ethiopian Peoples Patriotic Front), the juncture between the former and the latter being the sine qua non of an armed struggle in Ethiopia. The legal opposition, which saw not a single one of its leaders re-elected, is out for the count with very few chances of getting back on its feet not least because the ruling party will not allow them an inch of room to rebuild.

The hypothesis of a brutal breakdown cannot be totally excluded, with an unexpected event such as some insignificant incident that flares up into urban riots, stirred up by ethnic tensions and/or a sudden rage against the regime that the police and the army would be unable to contain. But, any internal changes could most probably only come through developments within the ruling party itself, given the impotence of the opposition and aid donors’ support of the regime. The political shift by the EPRDF and the multiplication of its membership has already started a process of change. Added to this is a generation change in the leadership, which is inevitable given the advanced age of the present incumbents. The profile of the newcomers is quite different to that of their elders in two fundamental ways: they did not rise out of the Ethiopian student movement of the 1970s, which was the strongest and most radically Marxist in all of black Africa; they came to the party out of self-interest, or were forced to do so.

So, what will be the position adopted by the new leadership? Will they stick together, or will the old guard keep control from the sidelines? How, within the Party, will the old hardcore deal with this mixed mass of newcomers and if they do manage to have a say within this heavily hierarchic Party, what will be their political stance? The future depends very much on the answers to these questions.

Given that the deepest sense of hierarchy runs through Ethiopian society as a whole, and given that the emerging middle class largely overlaps with the traditional elites, who have always been the opinion leaders, the neo-patrimonial system under construction could become sustainable, in other words, could offer the Party a wide enough and attractive base to be legitimised through (at least superficially) ‘clean’ elections. But on one condition: that everyone can benefit from this system on equal terms, i.e. that an end is put to the privileges accorded to the Tigreans. But will the present beneficiaries accept it?

Maintaining Tigrean domination, which has prevented any real democratic opening, was and still is the main factor of instability in Ethiopia. And it will continue if ethnic inequalities are perpetuated under this new, neo-patrimonial Party. The ‘national question’ remains the key of Ethiopia’s future.

About the author

René Lefort has been writing about sub-saharan Africa since the 1970s and has reported on the region for Le Monde, Le Monde diplomatique, Libération, Le Nouvel Observateur.

He is the author of "Ethiopia. An heretical revolution?" (1982, Zed books).