Sally Healy OBE
(Former Chatham House Expert)

Ethiopia's ruling party has already staged a victory rally in Addis Ababa to mark their satisfaction with the elections held last Sunday. The official results will not be announced until 21 June. But it is already clear that Meles Zenawi's Ethiopian People's Democratic Revolutionary Party (EPRDF) has seen off the opposition parties in no uncertain terms.

The shock of 2005

Is this a surprise? Not really. The big surprise occurred five years ago when the Ethiopian electorate threw caution to the wind and voted in their millions for a change of government. But they did not secure victory and the bold democratic experiment ended in violent protests and bloodshed. Opposition supporters were harassed and intimidated. Amongst opposition politicians there were bitter recriminations. Many endured imprisonment. Some chose exile. Judging from the results of the latest contest, it was not an experience that many wanted to repeat.

The 2005 election is chiefly remembered for the violence that came in its aftermath, as well as for a rather unseemly public row between Prime Minister Meles and Ana Gomez, who headed the EU Election Observation mission. In the confusion of a disputed poll and legal challenges, it has been largely forgotten how impressively the opposition actually performed.

Opposition annihilated

In 2005 the opposition took all 23 seats in the Addis Ababa region. In this month's election the EPRDF has gained 22 seats in the Addis Ababa region and the opposition just one. In the vast regional state of Oromia (some 10 million voters) where the opposition took 68 seats in 2005, the EPRDF has claimed all 178 seats. In Amhara region (around 8 million voters) the turnaround is equally dramatic: the EPRDF has won 137 out of 138 seats, 50 of which were taken by the opposition in 2005. The third most populous Southern Region (over 5 million voters) is a similar story. Where the opposition held 30 seats before, the EPRDF has won all of the 123 seats. With all but one seat out of 547 still to declare, the opposition forum, Medrek, has just one seat to its name. Practically speaking, the opposition has been annihilated.

Just desserts?

This result has not been achieved without serious and sustained effort on the part of the EPRDF, including a mass recruitment drive for party membership which now exceeds 5 million (1 in 6 of the electorate). Representative bodies at the grass roots level have been expanded to afford the government closer control of the populace. At the same time legislation was passed to prevent non government organizations engaging in any form of political advocacy or democratization activities. In short, the government closed down political space and has got the result it wanted.

Not surprisingly, Medrek is calling for a re-run. But such results are rarely produced through technical shortcomings in the election process. It is the political environment as a whole that needs to be addressed.

Does it matter? For Ethiopia's external relations, probably not. It is likely to stay the UK's number one aid target in Africa. But it does matter for the prospects for democracy in Ethiopia. Over six million people voted for change in 2005. It stretches credulity that such a number - 32% of the electorate - could have become convinced in the space of just five years that the EPRDF is, after all, the best choice for government.

It seems more likely that the lesson taken from 2005 was that, in Ethiopia, the chance to choose a government through a fair democratic contest was not in the end a serious one. A vote for the ruling party was in the circumstances the only prudent option.