The SEPDM has struggled to redefine itself, in large part because it represents such a disparate group of smaller identity-based political units. In particular, a process of fragmentation was unleashed by the Sidama referendum in November 2019, which saw the Sidama zone vote overwhelmingly in favor of breaking from the SNNPR and becoming a regional state.11 Other units of the SNNPR have also initiated the process for demanding recognition either as regions (most significantly the Wolayta zone) or subregional administrations (zone or woreda). The TPLF itself has remained coherent and is focusing on its regional base. But this itself is a shift for a party, which dominated national strategic planning for almost three decades.
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By early 2020, the EPP merger process had seen the TPLF formally exit the coalition and even some senior figures within Abiy’s own party, including defence minister and former ODP leader Lemma Megersa, break ranks by expressing doubts over the timing of the merger process.12 More broadly, the establishment of the EPP raises significant questions about the electoral outlook for the new party. In previous elections, identity-based opposition parties contesting on a regional basis have failed to assemble a coalition that could effectively compete with the EPRDF; even in the 2005 elections, it was two separate opposition coalitions that threatened the EPRDF’s parliamentary dominance. However, by appearing to shift away from regional identity, the EPP may be ceding significant ground to opposition parties in Amhara and Oromia, which account for the bulk of parliamentary seats; certainly the EPP will lose Tigray. Under Ethiopia’s ‘first past the post’ system, regional opposition coalitions or electoral pacts could see the EPP fall short of a majority even if no opposition party or coalition is able to claim a majority, either. It may be that the Abiy administration’s aim with the EPP is to achieve a plurality and, thus, the right to form a coalition government.13
Lacking Meles’s leadership trajectory as TPLF leader since the mid-1980s and his strong regional base, Hailemariam Desalegn struggled to control the mechanisms of power in the same way when he inherited Meles’s position. By contrast, Abiy has a strong demographic base in Oromia (estimated at about 40 percent of the Ethiopian population), where he had been generally popular, although this has faded during his second year in office. Abiy was in a better position to take advantage of the EPRDF’s centralized governance architecture. He has used this advantage to make some fairly unilateral decisions, particularly in overriding TPLF concerns about normalization of relations with Eritrea and in decriminalizing a number of political parties and inviting a range of opposition politicians back to Ethiopia from exile. Abiy’s tendency to formulate policy within the prime minister’s office rather than through existing institutional mechanisms is also reflected in his mediation intervention in the Sudanese political crisis in mid-2019, which was conducted without the assistance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, forcing it to catch up with developments afterwards.14 Political prisoners have also been released, although this started in early 2018, before Abiy’s ascendance.
Nevertheless, as EPRDF (now EPP) chairman and prime minister, Abiy inherited a difficult portfolio. Since the advent of Abiy’s premiership, a wave of major political and social reforms, fresh sources of conflict and displacement in various parts of the country, and shifts in long-standing economic policy have appeared. Broader regional policy has also been shaken up, most visibly in terms of the rapprochement with Eritrea in mid-2018, which has subsequently stalled. National elections tentatively scheduled for August 2020 are expected to be a crucial test of the transition’s legitimacy. Economic strains—which helped fuel the protest movement, but have also been exacerbated by the instability—remain a challenge.
Consequences of expanding political space
The space for political and civil society activity has increased dramatically since the beginning of 2019 as a result of the Abiy administration’s decision not to exercise the repressive powers it has under two 2009 laws—the ‘charities and societies proclamation’ and the ‘anti-terrorism proclamation’. The charities and societies proclamation severely curtailed the range of issues domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or other advocacy groups could be involved with and defined as a ‘foreign’ organization any group which received more than 10 percent of its funds from outside Ethiopia. The anti-terrorism proclamation gave the government wide latitude to define activity, including any anti-government activity, as terrorism. This was used to clamp down on the media and to repress opposition parties.
Recent legal reforms should be seen as substantive processes, bringing the rule of law in Ethiopia more in line with global norms
A new ‘civil society organizations agency proclamation’ was gazetted in March 2019, and draft anti-terrorism legislation approved by the cabinet in mid-May is undergoing parliamentary debate. Once in place, these will codify limits on government. For the EPRDF/EPP, this is more than symbolic. The declaration of the state of emergency in 2016 reflected the coalition’s legalistic approach to governance and its tendency to ground its repression in legal cover. These recent legal reforms should, thus, be seen as substantive processes, bringing the rule of law in Ethiopia more in line with global norms. The former political prisoner and judge Birtukan Mideksa was appointed to lead a reconstituted National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) in November 2018.
While elections normally take place in May, the national and regional polls have tentatively been set for August 2020, and the government and NEBE still appear committed to holding them. Local elections, which have been on hold since 2018, may also be conducted in 2020, possibly in parallel with the regional and national elections. However, without a trial run in local elections, the NEBE’s capacity to manage the national and regional elections is unclear, although the relatively smooth conduct of the Sidama referendum gave some indication of its capacity.
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