ADDIS ABABA (AFP) — Ethiopia’s opposition accuses the regime of pulling out all the stops to prevent change in next year’s elections, using a familiar arsenal of arbitrary arrests and trumped-up coup charges.
Still reeling from 2005 polls in which it says it was robbed of victory by the incumbent regime, the opposition is warning that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi will do what it takes to maintain his 18-year-old stranglehold on power.
“Our position is that we want the 2010 election to be fair and free but from what we see it will be very difficult,” said Temesgen Zewde, one of the leaders of Ethiopia’s largest opposition coalitions, Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ).
UDJ’s overseer Birtukan Midekssa was re-arrested in December after having her pardon from a life sentence for treason revoked on the grounds that she denied expressing remorse.
“Harassment, imprisonments, closure of our offices are going on throughout the country. The pattern of intimidation from the ruling party is the same that we saw in 2005,” said Temesgen. “We are very much worried”.
The 2005 vote, the country’s third pluralist elections since the 1991 ouster of a Soviet-backed dictatorship, was widely condemned as having fallen short of international standards.
Some 200 people died in post-election violence after opposition complaints of widespread fraud.
Despite international condemnation of the regime’s repression of opposition protests, it has been business as usual since, with the West continuing to treat Ethiopia as a key ally in the troubled Horn of Africa region.
In recent weeks, 41 opposition and former military officers were arrested on charges of plotting to assassinate top officials in Meles’ government and sabotage public installations.
The suspects in what is dubbed the Ginbot-7 (May 15) case have appeared in court twice, but police want more time to conclude investigations.
The government alleges that the conspiracy was masterminded by exiled government opponent Berhanu Nega. But speaking from his US base last week, Berhanu said the allegations were a fabrication by a government in “panic”.
Communications Minister Bereket Simon denied that government made up the plot to stifle the opposition in the run-up to polls.
“It is not a political set-up but a criminal offense which the government has ample evidence of,” he said.
Bereket said government would ensure the 2010 elections are “free and transparent” and that everything is done to prevent the deadly post poll unrest of 2005.
Berhanu dismissed the pledge as “posturing designed to fool the international community.”
Merara Gudina, leader of another opposition party, the Union of Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) also scoffed at the government’s pledge.
“The ruling party’s statement on free and fair elections is contradicted by the reality on the ground. Reports we receive are that the same harassment of the opposition is continuing,” said Merara.
The opposition leader charged that Addis Ababa’s refusal to allow foreign election observers was further proof of the regime’s intentions.
“If we have nothing to hide, the election should be observable,” he said. “This country really needs change and the government is trying to block a peaceful regime change.”
“If you close political space, people are looking for other ways and means,” he said. “This government is increasingly dictatorial” and has “proved incapable of solving the main issues”.