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Ethiopia Considers Its Vote


One year ago [May 15] Ethiopia held its third multi-party general ballot, which attracted a record voter turnout. The elections started peacefully, but turned into turmoil when the government and the opposition disagreed about the results.

Ethiopians at home as well as abroad are preparing to observe the first anniversary of the landmark May 15, 2005 elections. Members of 35 parties, many of them in coalitions, competed for 524 parliamentary seats. Ninety percent of the electorate turned out.

Both the government and the opposition claimed victory at the polls, in what observers say was the most competitive election at the nation's history.

Imru Zelleke is a former Ethiopian ambassador who fled the country in the 1975 when Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed and now lives in the United States. He says, "Twenty-five million people voted. There were three hundred or maybe four hundred foreign observers. There were about 1500 local observers. And there was no question that the opposition won the majority of seats."

Many Ethiopian ex-patriots worldwide will observe the first election anniversary as Ethiopian Democracy Day, the day, they say, when the opposition's Coalition for Unity and Democracy, or C.U.D., defeated the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

Both Parties Victorious?

But the ruling party, Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, or E.P.R.D.F, also claimed victory in last year's elections. Months of political wrangling culminated in early November when the opposition's call for a national strike triggered a government backlash. In the post-election violence, more than 70 people were killed and thousands were arrested, among them many elected opposition party members, journalists and civic leaders.

At the intervention of international donor countries, on whose aid the impoverished Ethiopia depends, most of the detainees were released. But more than a hundred are now on trial for treason.

Robert Guest, a journalist for The Economist magazine and author of a book on Africa titled: The Shackled Continent, is one of many observers who say the charges are unfounded. He says, "They've even accused them of planning a genocide, which is preposterous. The information minister said that had they not stepped in to stop these demonstrations, there might have been a genocide that would have made Rwanda's look like child's play."

The arrest and trial of some opposition leaders has prevented them from taking their seats in parliament and others have boycotted their seats in solidarity.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi made another unpopular decision recently (May 9) when he appointed an interim mayor to run the capital city of Addis Abbaba, where the opposition won an overwhelming majority.

The United States and other donor countries are urging talks among the parties, including the detainees, but have not disputed the official election results. Some analysts, including George Ayitee, President of the Free Africa Foundation in Washington, says the West has allowed the crisis to fester.

According to Ayitee, "The opposition C.U.D is a large coalition of several opposition groups. So it's a political force to be reckoned with and it should not be taken lightly. This type of electoral dispute and tension needs to be diffused as rapidly as possible because many, many African countries have been destroyed because of disputes over election results."

Ethnic Violence

One danger, some analysts warn, is the eruption of ethnic violence between the Tigrayan minority, which is in power, and other groups. Some observers say neighboring Eritrea, which has a border dispute with Ethiopia, may be willing to support the opposition in a possible armed conflict with Ethiopian government. Analyst George Ayitee says that to avoid a conflict, the international community should urge Ethiopia to follow the South African path to democracy.

Ayitee says, "You hold a conference of all political stakeholders in Ethiopia -- not just the government, but also the opposition, also church leaders, also trade union leaders, also traditional leaders. Put all of them together. That's what South Africa did. They (would) hammer out the way to move the country forward democratically. Whatever decision they come up with must be sovereign in the sense that everybody agrees with that particular decision. Nobody can overrule it."

But many analysts are skeptical that the ruling E.P.R.D.F. party would allow such power sharing. Theodore Vestal, a board member of the Ethiopian Research Council notes that Ethiopia's leaders are mostly members of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front. He says, "These are Tigrayans who are veterans of the Marxist-Leninist league of Tigray. They use party discipline. They use all of the dirty tricks of the Marxist-Leninist regime to stay in power and discourage other people from trying to share in the power. So until those people are somehow removed, I don't think there is really much hope for democracy -- as we would understand it in the West -- really taking hold."

Some analysts argue that even though Ethiopia has drifted away from democracy since last year's election, the current government is an improvement from the Marxist regime of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, which Prime Minister Meles Zenawi helped depose in 1991.

British journalist George Guest suggests that Ethiopia should look for democratic models beyond the African continent. He says, "South Africa has a tremendously advanced infrastructure and Botswana is mono-ethnic, more or less. So their problems are not the same. I don't think they should necessarily be looking at other African countries. They should be looking worldwide and saying: 'Look, countries where you allow your citizens more freedom are richer and happier places then where you try to keep a lid on it.'"

Many analysts note that democracy is a process that takes time to develop, but they are optimistic that the winds of democratic change that have swept Ethiopia cannot be contained.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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