Jason Mosley
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme
Electoral defeat is not on the cards for Ethiopia’s ruling party, but it is vital for the country’s development that it engages more effectively with dissenting voices.
Photo by Getty Images.Photo by Getty Images.

Ethiopians will go to the polls on 24 May. Few observers doubt the outcome, with the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) expected to remain in power.

While symbolically significant – this is the first general election since the death of the long-serving prime minister Meles Zenawi in 2012 – the polls are more of a logistical hurdle for the ruling party than a competitive, democratic exercise. What happens after the elections is more important for stability than the conduct of the polls themselves.

The prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, will lead the EPRDF into the elections, but there is intense speculation about how long he will remain in charge. Senior figures in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Meles’ former party and the core constituent group of the EPRDF, are assumed to be competing to succeed Desalegn as national leader.

However, Meles had begun a generational shift in the EPRDF’s leadership, bringing new leaders to the fore – including Hailemariam as his deputy – in the two years preceding his death. The continued dominance of ethnic Tigrayan leaders (such as Meles) was creating a challenge for the EPRDF as a multi-ethnic coalition. Hailemariam, an ethnic Wolayta from southern Ethiopia, is thus a symbolically significant choice. Retaining Hailemariam would reflect recognition within the EPRDF executive committee that stability rests on maintaining a truly multi-ethnic party.

The EPRDF values stability, given its ambitions. It came to power with a vision of itself as a 'vanguard' party, setting the agenda and pulling the country’s population along with it.

In the past decade, that agenda has focused on an intensive campaign of infrastructural development – especially roads, railways, and electrification – which has underpinned a surge in headline GDP growth (which averaged 10.8 per cent between 2004 and 2013). The impacts are visible, although poverty reduction in a heavily agrarian and rural society remains a challenge.

The government is expected to unveil its next five-year economic plan by June, following the 2010-15 growth and transformation plan – probably maintaining a focus on infrastructure, including links to neighbouring economies. Boosting exports is at the core of Ethiopia’s economic strategy. Annual export volumes have risen by an average of almost 11 per cent since 2004, although the trade deficit remains acute due to the import demands of the infrastructure programme. The start of electricity generation from the 6,000 MW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – and increased or new exports to Sudan, Egypt and Kenya – will mark a significant shift in Ethiopia’s export profile.

The EPRDF sees elections as an opportunity to engage the population in an act of political participation, albeit non-competitive. Last year, the government conducted a series of training sessions for mid-level and senior civil servants, university lecturers and students, during which the goals of a developmental state were set out, and a case was made for the EPRDF’s continued leadership – perhaps for decades.

The government also adapted its 'one to five' network, which had underpinned massive expansion in EPRDF membership – now at about 7 million – since 2005. Instead of one member recruiting five, one public sector worker is now responsible for reporting on the 'developmental activities' of a group.

Beyond 'participation', the mobilization and social control aspects of this network help entrench EPRDF control.

Although opposition parties are participating in the election, their competitiveness has been undermined by internal divisions and bureaucratic obstacles. The main block, the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum, emerged before 2010 but has failed to move beyond a strategic coalition and forge a common political platform. The Blue party was established in 2012, and has managed to organize some demonstrations.

Divisions within and between parties have enabled the government-controlled national electoral board of Ethiopia to establish bureaucratic hurdles. For example, the sole opposition MP will not stand for re-election after the board registered a rival faction of his party.

Demonstrations have emerged as an alternative outlet for dissent. Since 2011, Muslim leaders have organized intermittent protests against government involvement in religious affairs, after the EPRDF sought to promote the influence of al-Ahbash, a perceived moderate school of Islamic practice. Protests have triggered crackdowns by security forces.

Significant demonstrations also took place in May 2014, in a largely spontaneous response to a draft of Addis Ababa’s city expansion plan. The Ethiopian capital is at the heart of the EPRDF’s economic development strategy, but its footprint effectively extends throughout Oromia, the state in which it is located. A proposal to absorb some of the neighbouring administrative districts under the Addis Ababa authorities prompted a wave of regional protests and another crackdown.

A few weeks ago, EPRDF critics took advantage of demonstrations against the apparent execution of 30 Ethiopian Christians in Libya by Islamic State to voice frustration with the government. In the absence of formal spaces where political dissent and grievances can be aired, there is a risk that spontaneous demonstrations of this kind could escalate.

In this balance, the EPRDF’s relations with donors are a crucial factor in maintaining its position. The trade deficit hit $4.7 billion in 2014 – partly offset by the country’s $1 billion Eurobond issue and a similar amount of foreign direct investment. Ethiopia remains structurally dependent on aid, with the country receiving more than $3 billion a year from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. However, all indications are that external support will remain strong, regardless of electoral openness. Ethiopia is a key partner for countries concerned about security in the region, especially the US, UK and the European Union. Consequently, political reform will need to come from within the system.

This article was originally published by the Guardian.

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