Ethiopian Opposition Says It May Boycott Elections

Mass rally 2005By Jason McLure, Oct. 10 (Bloomberg) — An alliance of Ethiopian opposition parties may boycott elections scheduled for May 2010 unless the government releases imprisoned opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa and others they say are political prisoners. (Picture: Mass rally in Addis, 2005. Also the ICG warned of the potential for a violent eruption of conflict ahead of the election scheduled for May 2010 because of rising ethnic tensions and dissent)

“Birtukan is the spearhead of these political prisoners,” Gizachew Shiferaw, a member of the Unity for Democracy and Justice party and vice-chairman of the eight-party Forum for Democratic Dialogue opposition alliance, said today in Addis Ababa. “Unless we take some sort of remedy toward these political prisoners, it will be difficult to look at the upcoming elections as free and fair.”

Birtukan, 35, was given a life sentence last December after the government accused her violating an agreement that freed her in 2007.

Members of the alliance called on Western countries to pressure Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front by threatening to withhold foreign aid. Speaking at a press conference, they demanded negotiations on issues such as the establishment of an independent electoral board, harassment of opposition candidates and supporters and the presence of international election observers.

“We appeal to the international community that what we want is a fair game,” said Merara Gudina, chairman of the FDD.

‘Invited to Dialogue’

Bereket Simon, the government’s main spokesman, said in a mobile phone interview: “Yesterday, we invited them to a dialogue in the presence of the British and German embassies. We invited them to join negotiations. They declined. The party who walks away from the negotiating table doesn’t have a moral right to accuse us of closing political space.”

Government officials including Prime Minister Meles have repeatedly said that the jailing of Birtukan is a legal matter unrelated to politics and have defended the country’s electoral record.

“The intent of some of these individuals is not to contest the elections in a serious manner,” Meles said at a Sept. 16 press conference. “The intent of these individuals is to try and discredit the election process from day one.”

Birtukan was first jailed in November 2005 for attempting to overthrow the constitutional order after the country’s disputed 2005 elections led to street demonstrations in which 193 people were killed. She was released in 2007 under a pardon agreement brokered by the U.S. and a group of Ethiopian elders.

Opposition candidates won just three of 3.6 million seats in local and by-elections in 2008, after major parties boycotted citing harassment and intimidation, according to a tally by the U.S. State Department.

Ethiopia received $2.4 billion in official foreign aid in 2007, the last year for which data are available, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Meles’ EPRDF has ruled Ethiopia since ousting the country’s former military regime in 1991.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jason McLure in Addis Ababa via Johannesburg on pmrichardson@bloomberg.net.

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