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Potential For Violence Shadows Ethiopia's 2010 Election

Ethiopia's next national election is a year away, but tensions are already increasing. At least two opposition politicians have recently been jailed, both possibly facing life in prison, and security forces have arrested dozens of others, accusing them of plotting against the government. Both government and opposition leaders are expressing concern about the potential for election-related violence.

No Ethiopian needs reminding about the horrors that followed the disputed 2005 election. Nearly 200 protesters killed in the streets by security forces, more than 100 opposition leaders, arrested, convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison before being pardoned.

When government spokesman Bereket Simon kicked off the 2010 election season, he said a top priority of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Party would be preventing violence. "This election must be peaceful. Government must do whatever it takes to ensure that our election will be peaceful," he said.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi warned that government forces would have little tolerance for street protests. "The 2005 experience was experience enough for anybody to be able to learn from, and so I'm sure our law enforcement entities will be much better prepared for any eventuality than they were in 2005, not only in terms of handling riots, but also in terms of deterring and preventing riots," he said.

Opposition activists are equally concerned. It was their supporters that were killed in the streets four years ago. Many fear 2010 could be as bad or worse than 2005.

Already, several government opponents have been jailed. Among them, Birtukan Mideksa, a charismatic young former judge who was among those sentenced to life and then pardoned after the 2005 election.

Birtukan had been touted to be a potent force in the 2010 vote. But she was re-arrested and ordered to serve out her sentence after saying she had not asked for the pardon.

Another prominent member of Birtukan's party, Melaku Teferra, was among 40 people accused last month of involvement in a coup plot directed by Berhanu Nega, who was elected mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005.

Berhanu and Melaku were also among those jailed for life after the last election. Melaku stayed in Ethiopia after being freed. Berhanu fled to the United States, where he teaches economics at a Pennsylvania university and heads a political group that advocates the overthrow of the Meles Zenawi government.

Merera Gudina is another political science professor who doubles as an opposition leader. Merera teaches at Addis Ababa University. His party is among eight opposition groups banding together in hopes of mounting a serious challenge to the ruling EPRDF.

Merera worries, however, that next year's vote may turn into a replay of last year's local and bi-elections, in which the EPRDF and its affiliates won all but three out of nearly 3.6 million seats being contested. Most opposition parties pulled out of the contest in advance, complaining the rules were written so only pro-government parties could win.

Merera says given that the EPRDF now controls all local administrations, this election will be a struggle to prevent Ethiopia from becoming a one-party state.

"Our role is… to make sure this government cannot rule without accepting the rules of multi-party democracy. We are in a struggle. This government is not ready for change, and this government is cheating left and right and its ultimate agenda is revolutionary democracy. We know all these things, and in fact people who were with (Prime Minister) Meles, who used to play those games and clearly know these games, are now with us," he said.

Seeye Abraha Hagos is a former member of Prime Minister Meles's inner circle. He was military commander of the guerrilla force that brought the Meles government to power. After a falling out with the government, he was convicted of corruption and spent several years in prison. But he is still popular among his former military colleagues

Seeye is now a member of the coalition of opposition groups know as the forum. He says the only ways of breaking Ethiopia's long tradition of violence-plagued elections is to ensure opposition parties and their supporters know change is possible through the ballot box.

"There is always violent opposition in Ethiopia. Even if you take out the 2005 elections, there was violent opposition in this country. So if we are ever going to control violence in this country, the only way out is to chart a peaceful political transition. No peaceful elections, no peaceful political transfer of power would mean there will be continuous violence in this country, and this can take this country down the drain given our poverty," he said.

A year before the May, 2010 election, Ethiopia displays all the outward signs of calm. Despite grinding poverty, frequent power cuts, and a severe foreign exchange shortage that has seen imported goods disappear from stores, there is little evidence of the country's violent past.

But opposition leaders and political analysts caution that the outward appearance masks a deep-seated longing among Ethiopians for freedom of political expression. Former defense minister Seeye Abraha likens the country to a dormant volcano. It might look calm, but even a small disturbance could set it off.