The Emperor Has No Clothes
Published: May 30, 2005
By all accounts, the election of May 15, 2005 was a historical landmark that is set to shape the Ethiopian political landscape for the years to come. Even the uncertain events following the election such as the delay in vote counting and Mr. Meles' banning of public meetings and demonstrations will not be detrimental enough to reduce the significance of this event.
However, the most significant aspect of the election that will be remembered for years is the long-coming total and complete defeat of the EPRDF candidates for seats representing the city of Addis Ababa. For any party, let alone the incumbent party, to lose all 23 seats in the capital city with an average margin of 80% to 20% is so monumentally significant that a price has to be paid for such a colossal defeat. After 14 years of rule, to come out a loser in the city of seat of government with not even a single seat has exposed - with no shades of any doubt- that the EPRDF rule, particularly the leadership of its chairman, the prime minister has been a total and complete failure. One is tempted to compare this complete and embarrassing routing of the EPRDF party and its senior members at the ballot box in the 23 constituents of Addis Ababa to the defeat of the Ethiopian Army in Enda Selassie in 1989 by the TPLF army with the help of its EPLF friends. As History has recorded, the Mengistu regime never recovered from that fateful loss. Has the Addis Ababa election loss become the new Enda Selassie loss for the TPLF leadership?
We think only time will tell how significant this loss will be and if it will contribute to the eventual collapse of the TPLF. But one thing is sure at this point - that the prime minister, Mr. Meles Zenawi is a weakened emperor with no clothes. His 14 years of uneasy stay in Addis Ababa has bore no fruit and his vision and wish for Ethiopia has been rejected by a very sizable segment of not only the Addis Ababa voters but by voters in the urban areas of Southern Regions, Amhara, and Oromia states.
So, two weeks after this election, we stand in a changed political landscape but one wrought with a lot of uncertainties. The question of where the country goes from here is the million-dollar question begging for an answer and a lot of patience. Mr. Meles has proved to be brave by subjecting himself and his party to the test of popular vote. In his tradition of complexity, however, he has also proved that he is as much a backward dictator as they come by banning demonstrations and public gatherings. But, do not underestimate Mr. Meles. He is determined to keep his power by any means even if he has to cheat. Going forward, Mr. Meles will do his level best to put a positive spin to his loss and begin immediately plotting the downfall of all who have risen to challenge him in this Historical election. Do not be surprised if he goes personally against some of the prominent and most visible CUD and UEDF leaders. Messrs. Hailu Shawel and Lidetu Ayalew will be targets of particular interest for Mr. Meles' favorite weapons of trumped up charges. If the past is a helpful indicator, the EPRDF machinery may also go after active and visible CUD and UEDF cadres and supporters. Mr. Meles' challenge may not come from CUD and UEDF alone, but from some of his own TPLF cofounders and cadres who may not share his appetite for exercises in elections. Will he survive this challenge from his own party? The absence of intelligent and resourceful potential leaders who could pull a successful coup d'etat along with his own survival skills may be his salvation.
For the opposition, the general feeling among its leaders and supporters that it has actually won the election and that it enjoys a wide support across the country will make it difficult to swallow an EPRDF win. It is also safe to assume that its leaders are cognizant of the fact that they face possibilities of years of harassment and intimidation by EPRDF if they let this one go. The younger leaders such as Dr. Berhanu Nega (47) and Professor Merera Gudina (49) may have time on their hand and the idea of toughening it out till the next election may not be a bad idea. However, for Mr. Hailu Shawel (CUD chairman) who is 70 years old (perhaps 75 years old according to unofficial sources), waiting another five years till 2010 for another shot for a win is obviously not attractive. Further, there is also no guarantee that the almost miraculous forces that enabled a remarkable unity among the opposition will hold for another five years. Against these backgrounds, the pressure on the opposition, CUD and UEDF in particular, to fight for the legitimate counting of all votes from this election whose outcome are still disputed is immense. With or without Mr. Meles' bans on public gatherings, the opposition may be forced to maneuver to exercise innovative ways of protesting what it perceives as flawed process. Since they have already actively sought peaceful protests through prayers, it is likely that they will increase the rhetorical pressure on EPRDF and build up public resentment till a spontaneous mass demonstration becomes inevitable. No one would like to see a retaliation by the government if such demonstrations become a reality; but any such public display of force, especially, if millions come out may be the last thing that EPRDF wants to see. Will such massive demonstrations bring an eventual change in government as in Georgia and Ukraine or will simply fizzle out as in Lebanon? The discipline of both leaders of the opposition and the EPRDF may determine if there will be a peaceful and conclusive resolutions if indeed this path of civil protest is what is undertaken by the opposition.
Therefore, the next few weeks and months will be times of very fluid environment wrought with uncertainty for both the EPRDF and the opposition. We hope - against hope - that the government will learn that it can not start a democratic process only to end it in the old ways of dictatorship. We also hope that the opposition leadership - with wisdom, fortitude and peace - do the right thing by demanding their earned right and privilege of fair and independent count of the votes. In all this, we wish a stronger and more democratic Ethiopia ruled by the party of the people's choice emerges.