Letter from Ethiopia: Overview on Election 2010
The opposition in election 2010 (Part II)

By Eskinder Nega / February 25, 2010
Ask me what the distinctive trait of the opposition is in this year’s election apart from the provocative imprisonment of Birtukan Mideksa, and my response would not be amidst the proverbial list: weak organization, lack of preparedness, appallingly low finance (pundits estimate that only slightly over half a million US dollars is available for the entire opposition this election season, excluding the miserly electoral board finance) and an assortment of other secondary factors.

We know from the 2005 elections that these are handicaps that could be overcome in the space of a few short months. But that did not happen by chance; it took the combination of a public predisposed to change; the excitement generated by CUD leaders, primarily by Birhanu Nega and Lidetu Ayalew, both of whom are for very different reasons no longer part of the opposition contesting in this election, and what is distinctively missing this year: the will to win.

It has been said copiously that the prime culprit for the pessimism that has overwhelmed the opposition’s will to win lies squarely in the fold of repeated fallouts between CUD leaders: first, between AEUP and UDJ, and later, quite shockingly, between Professor Mesfin Welde-Mariam and the UDJ leadership; and no less, the loss of Birhanu Nega to the legal opposition, the one person that had transformative effect on politics in 2005.

All too true, but less deliberated upon, though of no less significance, is how the conviction of most opposition leaders that the CUD’s choice in 2005 to boycott parliament was wrong has influenced this year’s elections.

Their argument is that the CUD should have accepted the final tally and moved on as an acknowledgment, on the one hand, to the undeniable progress the opposition had unexpectedly made, which it should have consolidated and built on for the 2010 elections; and on the other, to the stubborn determination of the EPRDF not to hand over power, which the opposition had no prospect of changing either by force or persuasion.

Whatever the merits of their conviction, its effect on this year’s election is palpable insofar as it has shifted the opposition’s strategy from winning to that of securing as many seats as possible, and subsequently, to joining parliament to prepare for the next battle five years hence. Barring the unlikely rise of unforeseen circumstances, expect not a repeat of the 2005 elections driven by an opposition and press intent on making history.

But this is not to say that this election is absolutely devoid of excitement. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take as an example the emergence of this year’s most exciting political personality, Seye Abraha, and his decision to contest the election in Tigrai. Herein lies not only the question of a free and fair election, but what an incensed TPLF leadership under Meles Zenawi is accusing Seye of fermenting: latent Tigarayan regionalism that threatens the cohesion of the entire Tigrayan national movement, in other words, the unity of the TPLF.

Hardly an accusation that matters the most to Seye now that he has turned his back on ethnic politics, but from the perspective of the TPLF leadership a battle they can not afford to lose. Exactly the setting for an epic political battle, if only Seye was backed by a functional party machine in Temben (where he will run), reasonable finance and a sympathetic press to relay his message. But all these are absent and this will have to be the mother of all David and Goliath battles; which will make it one of most watched election spots this year. And if in this specter too, David is to prevail over Goliath, the history of the TPLF will only be repeated, whose own crusade against the Derg mirrors the essence of the legend. But come what may in the election, Seye’s challenge of the TPLF in Temben has inadvertently highlighted the question of Adwan dominance; an issue that will ultimately have to be dealt with politically, unlike the tendency so far to dismiss it on grounds of conspiracies against Tigrayan unity.

But for now, the issue of Tigrayan unity is a powerful weapon that works in favor of the TPLF; and it will be interesting to see how Seye, with 35 years of political experience behind him, will tackle it. If he chooses to ignore it, he will do so at his own peril. I for one believe that the most important speech of his political career will have to address this issue, with the whole of Tigray -- indeed, the whole nation -- tuned in (He can use the air time allotted to the opposition on state radio and television.)

Seye’s impact on UDJ is also worthy of note. He joined it at a critical moment, when the party was for all practical purposes parlayzed, and his healthy self confidence, recognition of the value of team work (an attribute of TPLF leaders in general) has boosted morale both in the leadership and rank and file. Seye has spread his intensity and desire to see at least some result from this election to others, and I can’t imagine UDJ in its relatively robust standing these days without him.

There are other interesting contests around Tigray, too; Meles Zenawi, for example, is facing his party’s most famous female fighter, Aregash Adane, whose legendary courage is striking in that it still remains undiminished. Few expect an upset, but the power of Aregash’s personal odyssey will endure long after this election is over. But the absence of former TPLF heavyweights like Tewede Wolde-Mariam and Alemseged Gebre-Amlak is probably a sign that a more serious challenge to the TPLF’s hegemony may be five years in the future.

The elections elsewhere are less thrilling, perhaps with the exception of what many say is unlikely now: the faceoff between Lidetu Ayalew, a.k.a. Kidetu, and Bereket Simon, who insists that only his mother is Eritrean, in Bugena, Lasta. Lidetu, shrewd as ever, has calculated quite rightly that he has no prospect in Addis and has opted for a try in his home town. (Bereket, on the other hand, according to the rumor in Addis, is to shift to Gonder, where he was born; and, he insists, where his father is from. But this is not confirmed yet. We will have to wait for the official announcement of the candidates to see if it’s indeed true. But don’t be surprised if the EPRDF moves to save one its most valuable assets. Lidetu is maliciously inclined against the entire opposition and would rather see the EPRDF win rather than any of its opponents.)

In Addis Ababa, Engineer Hailu Shawel is to face Dr. Hailu Araya of Medrek in Wereda 23, where Hailu had won with an overwhelming majority in 2005. A split of the opposition vote is unavoidable, but if the crack will be large enough to enable the EPRDF to squeeze through with a third of the vote (the maximum it could reasonably expect in Addis) is an open question.

Part [I]

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