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Experts Say There Will Be No Contest in Ethiopia's Upcoming Vote

Ethiopian protesters in Washington have sought U.S. pressure to release jailed opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa.
Ethiopian protesters in Washington have sought U.S. pressure to release jailed opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa.

Horn of Africa experts in the United States say there will be no contest in Ethiopia's parliamentary election Sunday. They say it will be unlike the volatile vote in 2005, due to a diminished opposition and a ruling party totally in control.

The last election in Ethiopia in 2005 was fiercely contested, and when the opposition alleged there had been cheating in vote counting, riots broke out and about 200 people, most of them opposition activists, were reported killed.

Africa experts say the ruling party in Ethiopia made sure Sunday's upcoming election will not repeat that pattern.

Oberlin College International Studies Professor Eve Sandberg says the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front has made sure its message has been heard by would-be voters. "The current government has been using the media, which they control in a non-stop way to broadcast programs, which talk about how much better this regime is than the previous one and the fact that at least they have built roads, and at least they have painted some buildings, and at least people are not experiencing famine," she said.

Sandberg who recently worked as a political consultant in Ethiopia says, on the other side of the political equation, the opposition has nearly disappeared. "Their leaders are either in jail, in exile, or have resigned because they cannot see any way forward. If they show they are in opposition many of them find that police show up and they are either shot, or detained or harassed," she said.

A series of campaign-related killings in Ethiopia has raised tensions and sparked counter allegations between the government and opposition.

Examples of opposition leaders excluded from the process include Birtukan Mideksa, who heads the Unity for Democracy and Justice. She is in jail under a life sentence after an initial pardon for treason was revoked.

Berhanu Nega, who was elected as mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005, was also imprisoned during the post-election riots. He has since become a professor in the United States and was sentenced to life in prison in absentia for alleged coup plotting.

An expert on U.S.-Africa relations, who was in Ethiopia for the 2005 vote, J. Peter Pham, says major figures of the opposition remaining in the race are divided. "Hailu Shawul who led the opposition coalition the last time around is being opposed by the deputy head of the old opposition, Hailu Araya. They are facing off against each other for the same constituency," he said.

Terrence Lyons from George Mason University says he is disappointed, but not surprised by current political conditions. He says competition is still taking place within the ruling party. "Some of the folks who have been in power for almost 20 years are retiring and a younger generation, some perhaps more technocratic or more professional is coming up. There are endless speculations about what might happen when and if Prime Minister Meles Zenawi were to step down and who might be the successor. So, there are a lot of those kinds of questions that are percolating now," he said.

A former rebel leader, Mr. Meles has been prime minister since 1995. All of the experts interviewed for this report expect his party to win much more easily than in the 2005 election.

The prime minister's supporters say he has done much more than recent Ethiopian leaders in building up the country's economy, health and school system, while also keeping a vast multi-ethnic society stable, even as neighboring countries experienced repeated strife.