News / Africa

Ethiopia's Biggest Electoral Prize Divided As Election Nears

Next Sunday's election in Ethiopia is a contest for 547 seats in the House of People's Representatives, or parliament. Of those,  a third are in Oromia, a vast farming region that stretches almost all the way across the nation's midsection, south to the Kenyan border and north to Addis Ababa.  The contest for Ethiopia's biggest electoral prize is partly ideological, and partly a simple matter of survival.

The usual sputter of three-wheeled scooter taxis on Ambo's main street is overpowered these days by car-mounted loudspeakers preaching political gospel. Sunday is election day.

Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi (File)
Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi (File)

The ruling party in this region is the Oromo People's Democratic Organization, effectively the Oromo wing of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.

The OPDO and EPRDF control the patronage here. The Zone Administrator, Yohannes Mituku is also a candidate for parliament. He tells VOA the party's good works have earned it the people's support.

"We work for peace, development and democracy. In this regard we have done various activities that are really tangible and have benefited society," said Mituku.

Most analysts of Ethiopian politics expect the ruling party to win Oromia easily, if only because of its tight control over almost every aspect of Ethiopians' lives. And Oromia, with its 178 seats in parliament, is the country's biggest electoral prize.

But Oromia has been a hotbed of anti-EPRDF sentiment.  It is home to a shadowy separatist group known as the Oromo Liberation Front.

Western Oromia voted heavily for opposition parties five years ago, and a local politician, Merera Gudina is a leader of the so-called Medrek coalition that is the EPRDF's main challenger this time.

Merera says this election is about whether 19 years of Prime Minister Meles's concept of Revolutionary Democracy and a developmental state has moved Ethiopia toward democratic pluralism , or toward becoming a de facto one-party state.

"The developmental state is Meles's hypocrisy," he said.  "Meles is building the Chinese type of democratic centralism, top down approach, the hegemony of one party, and he calls it developmental.  What development? This country is one of the poorest on earth.  One of the five or six poorest," said Merera.

There is no scientific polling done in Ethiopia, but a sampling of public opinion shows deep divisions. In one neighborhood where government employees live, people speak warmly of the progress the country has made under EPRDF rule.

Yirba Hailemariam was a soldier in the army of the Dergue regime of the Marxist dictator Mengistu Hailemariam. But he says life has been better since the current government overthrew the Dergue in 1991.  

"Ever since the EPRDF has come to power, it has engaged itself in development work and making sure people have food," he said.

Housewife Bekelech Hailu stands in a field watching her sons play soccer. She says she is pleased with the progress she has seen under Prime Minister Meles.

"The government has done so much for us. My choice will be the ruling party again this time," she said.

But on the other side of town, there is another, darker view. People speak carefully; they hesitate to give their names. A teacher, who identified himself only as Biyaza calls conditions 'very dangerous'.

"The election is not free in Ethiopia. People are afraid, afraid of the government," said the teacher.

A middle aged woman standing in front of a broken gate gives her name only as Worknesh. She is uneasy about expressing her preference to strangers.

"I know in my heart who I'll be voting for, and I'll vote for what my heart tells me," she said.

The rallies and ad campaigns must end Friday, 48 hours before the polls open. Only then people will know whether they can get back to their normal lives, or whether, like last time, the results will trigger demonstrations and violence in the streets. The suspense is palpable.

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