The evolving political calculus
To compete across regions on a coherent national platform and secure a working parliamentary majority, Ethiopia’s federal politics necessitate coalition building
To compete across regions on a coherent national platform and secure a working parliamentary majority, Ethiopia’s federal politics necessitate coalition building. In doing so, political parties and coalitions widely use national/ethnic identity as a key organizing principle. However, the strategy is not used exclusively, and ‘pan-Ethiopian’ parties and coalitions have performed well in Addis Ababa and some other cities. A number of established parties returned to Ethiopian politics in 2019, and new coalitions are emerging ahead of 2020 in competition with the emerging EPP. Despite the EPP’s effective incumbency as the EPRDF’s successor, its ability to garner a majority depends on several factors—not the least the ability of opposition parties to challenge the existing order.
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Many of the older opposition parties lack significant traction in Ethiopia, with key leaders having spent significant periods of time, in some cases decades, outside Ethiopia (going back to the volatile politics of the 1970s). Many parties have split in exile, sometimes more than once. As a result, some parties are little more than platforms for individuals. The political opening has seen a wave of such individuals return to Ethiopia seeking inclusion and relevance, but many will likely shake out.
The politics of the protest movement created new networks for mobilization that have fed into both new and existing political movements. Most of the demonstrations were initiated locally, although key networkers in the diaspora helped to share information across networks. As a result, some of the more potent opposition parties have drawn on this.
In Amhara, the National Amhara Movement (NAMA) has emerged as a strong challenger to the ADP, and by extension the EPP. Similarly, in Amhara—but also in larger cities across Ethiopia—the EPP will face a challenge from the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party (‘Ezema’), which resulted from the merger of several established opposition parties in 2019.
In Oromia, some established opposition parties—in particular the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and politicians from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF)—have competed to absorb some of the reform mantle from the protest movement. Abiy and the OPDO initially benefitted from this, but the EPP will face a strong challenge from other Oromo nationalist parties. In particular, Oromo activist Jawar Mohamed, who supported the protest movement via his online media network, has emerged as a strong critic of Abiy and retains a significant mobilization capacity. He triggered a wave of violent unrest in which more than 80 died in late October 2019 when he claimed that his security detail was being withdrawn and that his safety in Addis Ababa was being compromised. Jawar intends to stand for parliament as a candidate for the OFC, which has recently announced an electoral pact with the Dawd Ibsa faction of the OLF and the Oromo National Party (ONP).15
Notably in this context, the registration requirements for political parties ahead of the elections have become more stringent: parties operating at the national level need 10 000 signatures and regional-level parties need 4000, up from 1500 and 750, respectively. Some of these parties represent armed movements, in particular the various factions of the OLF. As a result, there is a risk that those who (a) are unable to build a successful coalition of sufficient scale or (b) lose the contest to register their faction as the official version of the party for the election will resort to violence to demonstrate their claims to influence in the areas they consider their base. Violence has already transpired in recent months in Amhara and especially in western Oromia, in what appears at least in part to be pre-electoral manoeuvring.16
Conflict and humanitarian challenges
The protest movement and the transition under Abiy have unleashed a new wave of unrest rooted in identity politics, which has compounded a displacement crisis driven by pre-existing conflict
In addition to shifts in organized party politics, the protest movement and the transition under Abiy have unleashed a new wave of unrest rooted in identity politics, which has compounded a displacement crisis driven by pre-existing conflict. There are currently around 3.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Ethiopia, 2.6 million of whom were displaced by conflict. This is more than double the estimate on the eve of Abiy taking office (1.5 million IDPs in total estimated at the end of March 2018). Conflict-related to the boundary between the Oromia and Somali regions remains a key driver of displacement. Many IDPs are located in camps in Tigray due to targeted attacks on ethnic Tigrayans in other parts of the country, particularly since early 2018. There has also been conflict around sites where farmers from central highland areas of Ethiopia (particularly ethnic Amhara) were resettled in government programmes in western lowland areas during the imperial and Derg eras (1960s–1980s). Another acute pocket of conflict and displacement, also related to identity and historical settlement patterns across what is now a regional administrative boundary, exists between Gedeo (a zone in the SNNPR) and West Guji (a zone in Oromia).
Abiy’s administration was particularly slow to respond to the 2017–18 displacement crisis. In mid- to late 2019 the administration began an ostensibly voluntary resettlement programme, raising concerns in the humanitarian sector because the underlying drivers of conflict have not been resolved.17 Attacks on Tigrayans and those associated with settlement schemes reflect local resentment of perceived unfair benefits associated with previously dominant groups (especially Amhara and Tigrayans), who are perceived as having benefited from unfairly privileged access to resources and opportunities. There is also some overlap between recent patterns of conflict-induced displacement and the spread of protests during 2015–16. Despite the administration’s rhetoric of unity, deep fractures persist.
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