ADDIS ABABA - For the 2005 elections, Ethiopia’s government opened up the political arena. But when the united opposition received more votes than the ruling party expected, the government was accused of stealing back the elections and mass demonstrations against the final results turned violent. Now that there is a new prime minister, what do the opposition leaders from 10 years ago expect in the 2015 elections?
During Ethiopia’s 2005 elections, political parties campaigned freely and held lively debates with little or no government interference.
The country's mood, however, turned sour after the elections, when results were delayed, the government claimed victory and protesters took to the streets. Clashes between demonstrators and police led to the deaths of nearly 200 people.
Hailu Shawul was an opposition leader for the All Ethiopia Unity Party in 2005 and 2010. He said the political environment changed radically after the 2005 vote.
“They wouldn’t let anybody campaign really. Before that, they block your road, before you start they cancel your meeting. So even the election process was so skewed. The papers, they were already marked. So where is the election? The rural areas is all occupied by the cadres of the ruling party. If anybody, a group of people, talk to an opposition they are in jail the next day,” Hailu said.
Hailu, together with many other opposition leaders, was imprisoned for two years after they decided not to take their seats in parliament as they felt the government had stolen the elections.
Opposition leader Lidetu Ayalew contested the 2005 election with EDP, the Ethiopia Democratic Party, and is still on its national board. He said he felt the government always tried to win through intimidation, but changed its target after 2005.
“Five, 10 years ago the strategy of the ruling party was intimidating the party members or the candidates. Now that has been changed since 2010. So they try to intimidate the voters by going in every part of the country,” said Lidetu.
The 2010 vote ended with opposition parties holding only a single seat in parliament.
Lidetu said it is easy for the government to influence the population, as many Ethiopians are directly dependent on the government for their livelihoods.
“The land is owned by the government, if they stood against the government, they think that they will lose their land. When you come to the urban area, it is the government who employs people in mass, most people are civil servants because the private sector is not that much vibrant. Most of the cities, most of the houses are owned by the government. So those people who are living there are highly vulnerable for government influence,” Lidetu said.
Professor Beyene Petros has been in politics since Ethiopia's transitional government in 1991. He was elected to parliament in 2000 and 2005 and is currently the chairman of Medrek, a coalition of four opposition parties.
His constituency is Hadiya, about 190 kilometers southwest of capital city, Addis Ababa. He said his constituency is full of government special forces troops, wielding machine guns to intimidate voters. Still, he said, he expects the opposition to win at least a few seats in the May 24 elections.
“The 2010 kind of declaration of victory would not convince anyone, that EPRDF wins all that. They may play a game now where they may allow some of these loyal parties, some of them may sneak through. Some few seats maybe gained also by Medrek; but, that will not depict reality or will not match our capacity,” Beyene stated.
Beyene said that despite the steep uphill battle, it is important for opposition parties to stay active. “The purpose why you are running is, we want to do the politics. Even if you don’t win, we want to do the politics,” Beyene noted. “We want to defeat EPRDF. I mean they can grab the electoral things, but we will come out with the political superiority.”
The ruling party has denied any allegations of systematic intimidating opposition parties, members and supporters.
Over 36 million Ethiopians have registered to vote this Sunday. The only international observers present will be from the African Union.