Shiferaw Abebe — A month has passed since the recent Ethiopian election was held. Several commentaries have been written subsequently analyzing the results and their implications. Most agree that the ruling party, once again, has stolen the election. This time, unlike in 2005, the results were stolen before the elections were held. That is to say, the ridiculous “landslide victory” the ruling party claimed in the 2010 election is a result things that happened before the election: the narrowing of the political space for the opposition; the systematic and relentless intimidation, harassment, and imprisonment of opposition leaders by the ruling regime; the wiping out of the independent press after the 2005 election that allowed the ruling party to have a free ride on state media to spread its lies and propaganda unchecked and unchallenged; and finally the duress and blackmailing of the electorate by the EPRDF cadres to vote for the ruling party.
The above explanation has been confirmed and echoed by independent sources, including the EU election observers, Human Rights Watch and the US State Department. However, to attribute the unexpected election result entirely to the above factors would be not only inaccurate but also detrimental for what needs to be done going forward. For most of the factors mentioned above were pretty much at play during the 2005 election. Even when one can readily admit that the political space has been narrower and that the degree of political suppression has been scaled up after 2005, it is very hard to attribute the complete shut out of the opposition from parliament to these factors alone.
There are, at least, two additional factors that must be considered as contributing to the “unexpected” election result: the ruling party’s hard work and the people’s attitude toward the opposition.
EPRDF’s hard work: Immediately following the debacle at the 2005 elections, the ruling party did not lose any time when it got busy recruiting party members and laying down an aggressive organizational network through out the country. University graduates, service servants, outspoken community members, and members of civic organizations were cajoled or pressured to become EPRDF members.
No body gave much of a concern about the feverish membership recruitment by the ruling party, because most everyone, except, of course, the ruling party itself, believed that this would amount to anything at the end of the day. Back in 2005, it was reported that countless cardholding EPRDF members and members of the armed forces who were artificially transplanted to vote in targeted districts in Addis Ababa ended up voting for Kinijit, not EPRDF. There was very little ground to suspect any thing could change this time around. So, we might have laughed at the 4 million membership advertisement by the ruling party before the election. Now we know that it was not a laughable matter.
Over the last five years, the ruling party has been tightening the screws around its members through a carrot and stick approach – job security, promotion opportunity, or sheer intimidation and blackmailing. So when each party member was instructed to line up five voters for EPRDF for Election Day, they went house to house putting duress on ordinary citizens to vote for the ruling party. The dirty hard work paid off.
Secondly, there is an unmistakable shift in the people’s attitude toward the opposition. It is very hard to believe that Ethiopians at large have developed a more favorable feel for the ruling party in the last five years. The injustice, the trampling of their democratic and human rights, the economic hardships and the social ruin have not improved if not worsened. Debate after election debate, the opposition had shown the hollowness of the regime’s track record and the dangers of its future agendas. None of these seemed to have mattered. Why?
It is very plausible that the people must have settled for what they saw as inevitable: the “victory” of the ruling party in the face of a hopelessly tattered opposition. An opposition that is represented by five-dozen parties is simply too divided to inspire confidence to rule. Medrek had sparked some hope, but it came into existence rather too late to imprint its image in people’s mind. The friction and eventual split within the UDJ didn’t help matters. For the average Ethiopian, the opposition must have represented too much of an uncertainty.
The 99.6% win is not particularly important, as far the ruling party is concerned. It is not a translation of a love affair between the people and EPRDF. For an authoritarian regime, the percentage doesn’t really matter for the way it will rule the country. The 99.6% vote statistic must be important and profoundly troubling for the opposition in so far as it says something about the attitude of the people toward the opposition. A complete shut out only five short years after the Kinijit success story could be seen as a harsh referendum on the opposition, which is a lack of confidence in its capacity to change the power equation. If the opposition is incapable of inspiring confidence, the people lose hope. So they make opportunistic choices. They chose not to offend the ruling party for whatever opportunistic reasons. Of course, the people of Ethiopia will have to live with the consequences of their choice for five more years, at least. But for the opposition, the future presents an uphill battle for proving the ills of the ruling regime is not enough any longer.
What is to be done?
We can continue analyzing the past for ever. But that won’t serve much worthwhile purpose. Now is the time to talk about and start to do something about the future. As a Medrek supporter who plans to remain so, the following are my commonsense suggestions to the leaders of Medrek on what needs to be done going forward. There are those who think and argue that the recent election result has conclusively confirmed the futility of the notion of removing the regime through a peaceful means. While I don’t intend to debate this point of view here, the following points are based on my conviction that the peaceful struggle is still the preferred mode of struggle in Ethiopia.
Stay United: What the people of Ethiopia saw in the ruling party and admired but failed to find in the opposition camp is unity and strength in unity. The only valid point the ruling party made during the debates was that the opposition is incapable of forging a durable unity. This is not to suggest that the ruling party would be happy to see a united opposition. Far from it, its survival hinges on the disunity of the opposition. But the propaganda of a fractured and fragmented opposition has resonated with the electorate and has played out well in the ruling party’s favor.
Moving forward, don’t repeat the history of Kinijit. Issue a press statement that the Medrek coalition will stick together. This is symbolically a tremendous assurance for your supporters. Of course, your unity should go beyond symbolism. It should be solidified in a practical way.
Stay united; stay together – at any cost! Without unity, you are finished; you won’t have a future, at all. That unity is a singularly most important factor in determining whether the opposition has a chance to unseat the regime in power is an old theory. But now, via the 2010 election, the people of Ethiopia have echoed it in a very practical way. So the first task for member organizations of Medrek is to stay together in the coalition. Those who opposed the coalition will continue to pose challenges. Don’t waver. The principles behind the formation of Medrek are robust and should enable you to surf through any storm together as long as you stayed committed to those principles.
Don’t make wrong moves: Don’t spend too much time on spilt milk, which, for example, the 2010 election results are. Going to court is a futile exercise unless it is deemed necessary for buying time to sort out your next real move. No one expects a fair ruling from the courts, but once you go to the courts, failure to get a positive ruling will have a demoralizing effect on your supporters. Don’t call a rally, even if the regime allows it. It could have a fatal outcome if your supporters don’t show up in mass, which will likely be the case at this time. If only a handful come out, you would be doing the ruling party one last favor of “validating” its “landslide win”.
Don’t think of carrying out other forms of peaceful struggle, which may not be seen as peaceful by the regime, such as economic boycotting, stay at home strikes, etc. Not at least at this time. Now is time to regroup, and slowly building up momentum and strength. It is not time for false starts of any drastic steps. Pick a fight, which you are certain to sustain long enough if not win.
Connect with your base sooner rather than later: Call town hall meetings right away to reach out to your ardent supporters. This could be palatable to the regime and comfortable to your supporters. Even if it did not translate into parliamentary seats, it is a fact that millions have withstood the ruling party’s intimidation, blackmailing and harassment and voted for you. Perhaps more than the leaders of Medrek themselves, the rank and file party members and supporters are devastated. Lifting their spirit up is a first call of duty. More importantly, this will allow you to reassure your base and discuss ways of laying down organizational networks that will be systematically strengthened over time. These meetings will allow you to get feedbacks on what went wrong and on the way forward.
Follow this up with connecting with your base among the Ethiopian diaspora. There is no need for a large entourage of Medrek’s executives traversing Europe and North America. Plan to carry out a one or two-man mission in Europe and North America. By a very rough estimate, not more than 3 percent of Ethiopians in the Diaspora are politically active. Most of them are likely your supporters. Three percent is a small number, but all you need is a committed 5000.
You need money. Without it, you cannot run your head office, let alone open offices around the country. This is a hole the diaspora can fill. In the past, fund raising has been sporadic and ad-hoc, carried out only when opposition leaders tour Europe or North America. For the future, this needs to be done more systematically and regularly. For example, I would like to make monthly contributions to Medrek. I know of friends who will readily do the same. If 5000 supporters make a monthly contribution of $100, it would cover a substantial portion of your operating expenses. This may not go well with the regime in power, but you have to find a way around it.
Open up offices, as many as financial and logistical resources would allow starting with key constituencies (i.e., major cities). Show the people of Ethiopia that you are there to stick around, no matter what. Inspire confidence in those who voted for you and in those who would have liked to vote for you. Start organizational work. Start recruiting members. This is uneasy but absolutely necessary task. There is no point in participating in an election where there is a slack in recruiting members or in laying down organizational networks. Start small and if you persevere there will come a tipping point a year, two years, three years down the road.
Get bigger: If there is a silver lining in the devastating result of this election, it would be that most of the so-called opposition parties will go bankrupt and disappear from the scene. Only a handful of them are likely to survive. Work hard to attract members of the disappearing parties, while aggressively pursuing talks with the remaining parties by inviting them to join Medrek. During the election debate the opposition’s loudest complaint was about the narrowing of the political space. However, equally problematic was the clattering of that narrow space with a hodgepodge of minuscule opposition groups. Five-dozen opposition parties was simply too confusing and disheartening for an average person to think of the opposition in a serious way.
Reach out to the bigger opposition parties, including AEUP and EDP. These two parties are much weaker than their leaders would be willing to admit. They didn’t have the momentum going into the election. And now, with their loss, it will be a hard struggle to make a comeback. Try to reach out to the rank and file of their parties. Be firm but try different and creative things. Have a principled approach. Don’t form shaky coalitions with any one but make politically and strategically wise decisions.
Don’t count on the West: Winners have an inherent advantage over losers regardless of how unjustly they won. By contrast, particularly in the West, losing has an inherent repulsive effect that few would like to associate themselves with. Don’t anticipate the West to put any significant pressure on the ruling regime. America, Europe and others will continue with their business as usual dealings with the regime. Don’t appeal to the West. Don’t meet with their diplomats in Addis because, beyond lip service, they will not assist you in any significant or practical way. Your pleading will only give an impression of weakness. Find firm ways to inspire confidence and respect from the West. When you become stronger, when they see a credible alternative to the current regime, they will give you a call.
Birtukan Mideksa: Last, but not least, fight for the release of Birtukan Mideksa. Not only because you owe her that much, but more importantly, you need her. She is the future of the opposition. She is an inspirational leader, she is smart, and she is fearless. She is a household name that can inspire millions easily. She is the lightening rod Meles is scared of in his waking hours as he is in his dreams. Work hard for her release. This agenda alone should be the basis of your communication with Western Diplomats at this point in time. If the regime allows it, call for a rally in support of her release. Tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands will come out to the streets.
Conclusion: Whether all or any of the above points are on the mark or not, there cannot be any doubt that unless we put our thinking into action, unless we work harder starting now, we can rest 100 percent assured that the current authoritarian regime will stay in power for another 20 years. Even if Meles retires in five years, he will continue to rule the country by proxy making all the important destructive decisions from behind the scene. When that happens there is no body to blame but us.