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Ethiopia to Hold Parliamentary Elections May 23

A campaign poster for Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Tigray Region, Ethiopia

A campaign poster for Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Tigray Region, Ethiopia

Tensions are high in Ethiopia ahead of the May 23 elections for parliament. It will be the first nationwide vote since the flawed 2005 election that ended in violence, leaving hundreds dead. The country's ruling party is facing a stern test in its own backyard.

Rugged describes Tigray, its land and its people. The sparsely populated region bears the scars of two wars over the past quarter century.

Now another battle is raging, this one political. The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and its umbrella group, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, have held power since seizing control of Ethiopia's government in 1991. This is Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's stronghold.

But a breakaway TPLF faction is challenging the ruling party on its home turf. TPLF political chief Tedros Hagos charges the opposition is trying to overthrow constitutional order.

"Some of the parties have ill motives," he said. "Their agenda is violence. They think through means of street violence they can topple this government."

Opposition parties counter that what violence has occurred has mostly been directed against them. Alem Gebreyohannes's brother Aregawi Gebreyohannes was an Arena Tigray candidate until he was murdered. Police and a government-run human rights group ruled the killing was not political. But Alem says the investigation was a coverup.

"This was not an ordinary killing," he said. "The police didn't really try to find out what the motive was. What witnesses said and what is in the report are totally different."

Another Arena-Tigray candidate says his home was attacked with grenades. Ayale Beyene says the house, on a mountain ridge 15-minutes by foot from the nearest road, was not damaged, but his family was terrified.

"In the middle of the night, we heard a sound," he recalled. "We were afraid to go outside. When my brother came home, he found another unexploded grenade outside the door."

Tigrayans are known for keeping their political views to themselves, but domestic worker Almaz Tadesse offered high praise for Mr. Meles.

"There is no better leader than Meles Zenawi. He is our lord," she said.

Mr. Meles also has sharp critics. Yohannes Abraha blames the prime minister for the breakdown in relations with Eritrea that left Ethiopia without access to the sea. He says the TPLF must be ousted before Ethiopia can regain its former Red Sea ports.

"I want the ports to be back to Ethiopia through peaceful means. It's the will of the people," he said.

Prime Minister Meles is himself facing an unprecedented challenge in his hometown, Adwa, from a former neighbor and comrade in arms. Aregash Adane is a top TPLF fighter turned fierce critic of the group's Marxist-Leninist ideology known as Revolutionary Democracy.

"Nineteen years has taught us something, and I don't think this Revolutionary Democracy will bring basic change to our country," she said. "It has proved a failure."

Mr. Meles dismisses the criticism, calling it "a reflection of the heat of the competition."

The neighborhood where he and Aregash grew up hasn't changed much since they were young. An elderly man in the street says he remembers them both. But when asked whom he prefers, he politely declines.