Freedom in the World
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party sealed their complete dominance of political life with a crushing victory in the May 2010 general elections. The EPRDF and its allies took all but two seats in the 547-seat Parliament. The government stepped up its repression of independent media through interference with foreign broadcasts, including the jamming of Voice of America’s radio signal. Opposition political rallies were suppressed, while nongovernmental organizations struggled to sustain themselves under restrictive legislation enacted in 2009.
One of the few African countries to avoid decades of European colonization, Ethiopia ended a long tradition of monarchy in 1974, when Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in a Marxist military coup. Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam ruled the country until he was toppled by guerrilla groups led by forces from the northern Tigray region in 1991. The main rebel group, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), formed a new regime under the leadership of Meles Zenawi.
The EPRDF introduced democratic institutions and a new constitution. Most of the opposition boycotted elections in 1995, claiming harassment of its supporters, and Meles became prime minister. The EPRDF easily won the 2000 elections, and Meles began his second five-year term. Opposition parties and some observers criticized the government’s conduct of the vote.
A border dispute with Eritrea, which had gained formal independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a long guerrilla conflict, triggered a 1998–2000 war between the countries. The border dispute has yet to be resolved.
The EPRDF and its allies led the 2005 parliamentary elections, though the main opposition parties performed well, winning a third of the seats. Claiming that voter fraud had deprived them of outright victory, opposition supporters took to the streets. The authorities responded harshly, killing at least 193 people and arresting more than 4,000, including leading opposition figures. All were finally pardoned and released in 2007.
The opposition boycotted local elections in 2008, accusing the EPRDF of harassment. Opposition activities were further restricted in 2009 when 40 members of an unregistered political party were convicted of trying to topple the government.
In contrast to the 2005 elections, the federal and regional elections held in May 2010 were tightly controlled by the EPRDF, halting Ethiopia’s faltering process of democratization. The campaign was heavily weighted in favor of the ruling party, with European Union (EU) observers noting the use of state resources for EPRDF campaign activities. The gradual usurpation of the state by the EPRDF enabled the party to influence voter behavior down to the village level. According to Human Rights Watch, local officials or neighborhood militia reportedly went door to door, verifying that residents had registered as members of the EPRDF. Voters were threatened with losing their jobs, homes, or government services if they did not turn out for the party.
An electoral code of conduct was agreed between the EPRDF and several leading opposition parties, but others, including the Forum for Democratic Dialogue in Ethiopia (Medrek) coalition, refused to sign it, arguing that it failed to incorporate much-needed reforms of the electoral board and did not enable the media to freely report on the election campaign. The code was enacted as law despite such objections. Of the 79 registered parties, 63 decided to participate in the elections. The opposition failed to mount more than a token challenge to the EPRDF. Part of this failure can be blamed on a poorly run campaign, though official harassment and intimidation were also major factors. Opposition meetings were broken up, and candidates were threatened and detained. Ethiopia’s most charismatic opposition figure, the leader of the Unity and Justice Party, Birtukan Mideksa, remained in prison during the election. She had been convicted of trying to overthrow the constitutional order following the election-related disturbances of 2005. After seeking an official pardon, she was released in October 2010.
Several opposition candidates were also reportedly attacked during the 2010 election. In March, Aregawi Gebre-Yohannes, a member of a Medrek-aligned party, was stabbed to death in what colleagues considered a political killing. However, the government claimed Gebre-Yohannes had died in a bar fight and the man responsible had been arrested and imprisoned. Other incidents of violence were similarly difficult to substantiate amid the claims and counterclaims of opposition activists and government officials.
Polling day was peaceful and orderly, though monitoring assessments conducted by teams from the EU and the African Union (AU) differed sharply. The EU contingent said the election had not been conducted on a level playing field, while the AU delegation—which was not present in the weeks preceding the election—described the vote as free and fair. The United States declined to send observers because of restrictions placed on its mission, but said the election fell short of international standards and criticized the limitations placed on independent observers and the media in the run-up to the vote.
Opposition-aligned parties ultimately saw their 160-seat presence in Parliament virtually disappear. The EPRDF and its allies won all but two of the 547 seats in the lower house, while Medrek and an independent candidate each captured one seat. Of the nearly 30 million voters who took part in the election, 99.6 percent chose the EPRDF or one of its allied parties, according to official results. The EU and the United States expressed serious reservations about the outcome, but opposition demands for a rerun were dismissed by the Supreme Court.
Meles was sworn in for a third term as prime minister at the EPRDF conference in September. Several long-serving cabinet members were subsequently replaced by younger party loyalists, strengthening Meles’s personal control over the government.
Ethiopia’s relations with its neighbors were tense in 2010, as diplomatic contact with Eritrea remained frozen. In August, the Ethiopian military reportedly mounted incursions into areas of Somalia controlled by the Shabaab, an Islamist militia group. Internally, government forces appeared to gain the upper hand against separatist movements in Oromiya and the Ogaden. In September, Ethiopian forces claimed to have killed or captured 200 fighters from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) following a tip-off from the Somaliland authorities. A month later, an ONLF faction signed a peace deal with the government. The main Oromo rebel movement, the Oromo Liberation Front, was weakened by factionalism, defections, and arrests.
Ethiopia struggled with a prolonged drought in 2010. The UN World Food Programme estimated that 10 million people were in need of support, but the government played down the crisis and pledged to end Ethiopia’s dependence on food aid within five years.