Ethiopia's parliament is set to adopt an electoral code agreed on by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's ruling party and three of the opposition groups challenging his rule in elections next May. A coalition of eight other parties boycotted negotiations on the code, saying it fails to address their concerns that the system is rigged in the ruling party's favor. VOA's Peter Heinlein in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa examines the possibilities for a democratic opening in a country seen by many as a de facto one-party state.
Prime Minister Meles sat down with three opposition politicians last week to sign what was hailed as a landmark electoral Code of Conduct. Speaking in Amharic through an interpreter, Mr. Meles said the agreement would guarantee a level playing field for all competitors in upcoming parliamentary elections.
"This is a document that puts us on an equal footing and puts obligations on the two of us, which forces us to have an election that satisfies the criteria for democracy," said Meles. "This is a great achievement."
The Code of Conduct appears to answer concerns voiced by the opposition and the international community that Prime Minister Meles's Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front controls the electoral process.
Sitting next to Mr. Meles at the signing ceremony were three top members of the old Coalition for Unity and Democracy, which mounted a powerful challenge to Mr. Meles party in the 2005 parliamentary vote. That election ended in violence, when CUD demonstrators were gunned down while protesting that the election had been stolen. Many CUD leaders were charged with inciting the violence and imprisoned for life. They were later pardoned.
But eight other opposition parties boycotted the Code of Conduct talks and did not sign it, saying the agreement ignores the main issues. The eight, which have formed a coalition called the Forum for Democratic Dialogue, say fairness is impossible as long as the prime minister appoints the National Electoral Board and the government maintains its tight control over the media.
A former close associate of Prime Minister Meles, Gebru Asrat, is a vice-chairman and spokesman for the Forum. He says two of the three opposition parties that signed the Code of Conduct are moles with suspicious ties to the government.
"The EPRDF has discussed with parties that seem to approve or endorse its lines, not the serious parties that do challenge the EPRDF and do have serious issues about the political space in the country," said Gebru Asrat. "As far as we are concerned, nothing substantial has been discussed in this negotiation. This is simply a ploy to show the diplomatic community that the EPRDF is compromising with parties. Who are those parties? We know these parties, except the Unity Party."
The All Ethiopian Unity Party led by Hailu Shewal is the one signatory to the Code of Conduct widely acknowledged as a legitimate independent political force. Engineer Hailu, as he is called, led the CUD to its remarkable showing in the 2005 election, and was among those imprisoned afterward.
In a VOA interview, Hailu admitted that many opposition supporters are suspicious of his seeming closeness and conciliatory attitude toward Prime Minister Meles, whose government convicted him of treason and sentenced him to life in prison three years ago.
"I do not blame the people for being like that," said Hailu. "It is our history. We came through all these problems. That is why we say 'our discussions will continue'. Because there are nitty-gritty issues to solve, and the people are concentrating on those nitty gritty issues. They suspect we made a deal, they suspect we are taking advantage of something. Whatever we did, we did it for the people. And it is our job to explain what we did, to explain why we did it."
Hailu says he plans to make next May's election about core philosophical issues, such as the government's control of the country's land resources.
Individuals have a right to own the country's land. To release the people's energy they have to own something. They have to be aiming towards the leaders of their own destiny. But in the case where the government controls all the land, then there is no way that people can become what you call rich, or live a decent life.
Hailu says his Unity Party is the only opposition group with a near-nationwide support base. The Forum's support is seen as mainly among Ethiopia's two largest ethnic groups, the Amharas and Oromos, which comprise 70 percent of the population. But the actual strength of the each group remains untested.
The ruling EPRDF, on the other hand, can claim a nationwide party membership of 4.5 million, and a resounding victory in last year's local council elections. The U.S. State Department's 2008 Human Rights Report on Ethiopia says of the 3.6-million seats contested, the EPRDF and its allied parties won all but three.
The International Crisis Group recently issued a report concluding that "the contradiction between [the EPRDF's] de-facto one-party state and its promises to deliver multi-party elections ... has been a defining trait of politics since [it came to power] in 1991."
In response, Ethiopia's foreign ministry called the ICG report 'malicious propaganda' that contains extremely serious errors and takes an entirely negative tone toward government policies'.
The Electoral Board has set December 8th as the formal start of the 2010 election campaign. Voting will be May 23.