By Abebe Gelaw – 1 June 2009 — Wall Street Journal Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, one of America’s key allies in Africa, is gloating over his “landslide victory” in the country’s national elections earlier this month. The ruling party has claimed to have swept all but two of the 546 declared seats, which is more than enough to make the parliament a complete rubber stamp for Mr. Zenawi.
On Tuesday, a few hours before international observers released their preliminary report on the credibility of the polls, Mr. Zenawi gathered tens of thousands of his supporters for a victory rally at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, and called on the opposition and the international community to fully accept the supposed verdict of the people of Ethiopia.
The rally was also well-choreographed to condemn “foreign elements,” especially Human Rights Watch, which had already dismissed the elections as fraudulent. “Behind an orderly façade, the government pressured, intimidated and threatened Ethiopian voters,” said Rona Peligal, Human Rights Watch’s acting Africa director. “Whatever the results, the most salient feature of this election was the months of repression preceding it.”
Despite growing international uproar, Mr. Zenawi had a different take on the outcome of the “historic” elections. “As the whole world knows,” he said, “the fourth national elections have taken place in a peaceful, democratic and credible manner. These elections have been conducted successfully according to plan,” he declared.
His own hype notwithstanding, Mr. Zenawi has never managed to convince independent observers that elections have been free and fair since he came to power in 1991 after waging a bloody, 17-year-long guerrilla war to oust his predecessor dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam.
It was no surprise that the EU and U.S. came out quickly, albeit quietly, to contradict Mr. Zenawi’s self-congratulatory victory speech. While both noted that the elections were largely peaceful and free of violence, they added they were marred by a narrowing political space and did not meet “international standards.” This is diplomatic understatement at its most impressive.
If even a modicum of “democratic legitimacy” can be had by stage-managing national elections every five years, then Mr. Zenawi and his brutal iron fist will undoubtedly rule Ethiopia for many more years to come. After all, Ethiopian’s multi-party system has been carefully crafted to allow ethnically fractured and impotent opposition parties to confront the ruling party’s juggernaut, while guarding the incumbent’s security, logistic, financial, political and organizational advantage. In Ethiopia under Meles, as in the Mengistu era, the state and the ruling party are one and the same.
These fourth national elections were not any different from the previous three. As usual, the result was a foregone conclusion well before the game kicked off. The ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, is a coalition of ethnic parties created by Mr. Zenawi’s minority Tigray people’s Liberation Front in 1989. The ruling umbrella group has managed to spread its tentacles across the country within the last two decades, and boasts a membership of well over five million—one in six of the 29 million people reported to have cast their votes. Every ruling party member was ordered to bring at least five other voters to the polls.
The only time the ruling party was on the verge of losing power was during the third national elections. In 2005, the atmosphere was freer and opposition parties were allowed to hold unfettered political rallies and campaigns. The now defunct Coalition for Unity and Democracy party did extremely well. But the ruling party claimed victory before the count was completed.
When opposition supporters demanded respect for their votes and held protest rallies to vent their anger, Mr. Zenawi ordered loyalist security forces to crack down on dissent. Security forces opened fire in Addis Ababa, killing 193 civilians and wounding nearly 800 others. Opposition leaders, journalists, and civil society leaders were arrested and charged with treason and genocide. Over 40,000 opposition party supporters were rounded up and detained in military camps.
This year, it was clear Mr. Zenawi had learned from his 2005 mistakes, and took a series of preemptive measures to skew the election result. He closed down a number of critical newspapers, jammed the Voice of America, blocked critical websites, banned all forms of opposition rallies, crippled civil society organizations, and deliberately fomented divisions in the opposition camp. The charismatic Birtukan Mideksa, whom many refer to as the Ethiopia’s Aung San Suu Kyi, and other dissidents perceived as enemies of the state, were locked up.
In 2002, British journalist Jonathan Dimbleby—who famously exposed the 1973 Ethiopian famine—travelled there to see for himself the progress the country had been making. His ensuing article, “Ethiopia proves there can be life after death,” appeared on July 28, 2002 in the Observer, and quotes Mr. Zenawi as saying: “Africa’s downfall has always been the cult of the personality. And their names always seem to begin with M. We’ve had Mobutu and Mengistu and I’m not going to add Meles to the list.”
Today, Meles has comfortably joined the list he derided and despised. By the end of his new term, Meles will have ruled the poor nation that survives on food aid for a quarter of a century. For now, he has bought relative silence from the West by continuing to serve as a key ally in the war on terror. But in Ethiopia, totalitarian rule remains a serious act of terrorism that goes unchallenged. Ethiopia’s elections have turned out to be more embarrassing for its Western sponsors than their daredevil African ally, which shows no remorse over the death of democracy.
Mr. Gellaw is a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and its Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.