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Ethiopia Faces Era Of One-Party Rule

Ethiopia's 2010 election all but wiped out the country's once vibrant political opposition. This means that Ethiopia faces the prospect of one-party rule for the foreseeable future.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi categorically rejects characterizations of Ethiopia as a one-party state. Speaking to reporters last week, he likened the Horn of Africa nation to Japan or Botswana, where opposition groups operate, but one party dominates the political landscape.

"Ethiopia is not moving towards a single-party system," said Zenawi. "It can, with some credence, be said that it is a dominant party system, but there is a fundamental distinction between a dominant party system and a single-party system. The democratic system in Japan has been a dominant party system for half a century, but it has not been a single-party system."

Opposition parties do operate in Ethiopia. There were more than 160 opposition members from half a dozen parties in the last parliament. For last May's elections, many opposition groups banded together to form Medrek, or the Forum, in hopes of mounting a strong challenge to Mr. Meles's Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.

Other Parties Effectively Marginalized

But in an election criticized by observers for lack of transparency and failure to live up to international commitments, Medrek was swept out of parliament. Even though Medrek candidates received about 30 percent of the vote nationwide, they won only one seat in the 547 seat chamber, finishing second in almost every one of the "first past the post" contests. The EPRDF and its allies won 545.

Medrek's leader, Gizachew Shiferaw, calls the election a sham that reveals the ruling party's intention to stay in power at all costs. He rejects Mr. Meles's comparison with Japan, and says Medrek is adopting a strategy of peaceful struggle similar to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

"We are going to challenge the EPRDF," said Gizachew. "The Forum exists to change the oppressive political environment, and that will be our political agenda. This is a peaceful struggle. One has to learn the struggle instituted in South Africa. It may take time, but we think we are on the right road."

Jailed Leader Becomes Symbol

Gizachew likens Ethiopia's jailed opposition leader, Birtukan Mideksa, to South Africa's Nelson Mandela as a symbol of peaceful struggle.

Birtukan, a charismatic former judge, was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of provoking demonstrations protesting the EPRDF's victory in the last national elections in 2005. The United States and human rights groups list her as a political prisoner. Gizachew says greater international pressure is needed to win her freedom.

"Birtukan has become a national as well as international political figure, and I don't think you can simply lock (her) up in a prison and allow her to stay there. Because now there is an international movement," said Gizachew.

Prime Minister Meles, however, has been adamant in refusing to consider freeing Birtukan. He says her imprisonment is a judicial matter. At last week's meeting with reporters, he recalled a recent speech in which he announced a package of measures aimed at reconciling differences with political opponents.

"I'm sure you remember me telling you releasing Birtukan was not part of the package," said Meles. "It was not part of the package then, it is not part of the package now, and it will not be part of the package tomorrow. This is a purely legal issue, and it is between her and the law. No one can come between the two. No one. Not opposition parties, not our friends abroad."

Defending the Opposition's Defeat

Prime Minister Meles made no secret of his contempt for Medrek, suggesting its members oppose Ethiopia's constitution. Without mentioning Medrek by name, he called the defeat of such groups "a step toward stability."

"The 2010 elections have prepared the ground for a stable democracy in Ethiopia," said Meles. "Only those countries that have succeeded in marginalizing anti-constitutional forces by democratic means, only by marginalizing them by democratic means, have countries been able to establish stable democracies."

A moment later, the prime minister seemed to suggest he was referring to Medrek, saying there was no place for the group in a planned dialogue with opposition parties on the country's future.

"We have tried to engage the opposition," said Meles. "I have talked to the leaders of the opposition, other than that of Medrek and the All Ethiopia something movement. Those that are prepared to engage with us, I have already talked to them."

Election Review Report is Delayed

With the 2010 election in the history books, the only detail remaining is the verdict of a European observer mission on the conduct of the vote. A preliminary report issued immediately after the election questioned the fairness of the process, but a final draft expected in July has been delayed without explanation.

Prime Minister Meles, however, dismissed the EU report in advance. "I don't know even if the European report is late or not. I've not really been interested in the report. We have seen a glimmer of what it might look like, and what we have seen is bad enough, and so we are not interested any more in the full package as it were."

The next national election is still five years away, but both winners and losers in the 2010 vote are looking ahead to a generational shift. An EPRDF congress next month is expected to endorse a host of fresh faces in what Mr. Meles describes as a "comprehensive reorganization of government."

The Ethiopian leader previously said he would retire in 2015, when his next term in office expires. By then he will have been in power nearly a quarter of a century.