Ethiopia in ‘uncharted territory’ as party chooses PM
March 6, 2018 (Daily Nation) — Ethiopia’s governing coalition is facing an unprecedented tussle behind closed doors as it seeks a new prime minister after Hailemariam Desalegn’s shock resignation from the helm of Africa’s fastest growing economy.
With opposition parties enfeebled, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition wields absolute power, but Hailemariam’s departure last month revealed yawning divisions within the party after more than two years of anti-government protests.
A date for the meeting to replace Hailemariam has not yet been announced, but the stage is set for the most contentious battle to elect a leader in the party’s 27-year rule.
“We are in very uncharted territory, if you wish, and anything can happen,” a political analyst at a western embassy in the capital Addis Ababa told AFP.
– A unknown process –
At the heart of the division are competing claims to power from the four ethnically based parties that make up the coalition, and differing visions of how the EPRDF, long accused by dissidents and rights groups of being authoritarian, should govern Ethiopia.
The latest sign of a schism came last week when 88 lawmakers in parliament, dominated by the EPRDF and its allies, voted against a nation-wide state of emergency decreed after Hailemariam’s resignation.
It passed anyway, though dissidents claim the vote was manipulated.
“There’s no candidate from Ethiopia, or outside, for that matter, who can unite Ethiopia,” a western diplomat said.
It will be up to the 180-member EPRDF council, made up of 45 dignitaries from each of the four parties, to elect a new leader.
Awol Allo, an Ethiopian political commentator who teaches law in Britain, said little is known about how the selection will be made.
“We don’t really have the clarity about the inner workings of party. There are no clear rules about how this individual is picked,” Awol said.
EPRDF council members rarely talk publicly about party politics and government officials did not respond to AFP’s request for comment.
– Three candidates –
Traditionally, the leader of one of the parties in the coalition is chosen as prime minister.
Analysts believe the chairmen of three EPRDF constituent parties are frontrunners to replace Hailemariam, who will stay in office until a successor is chosen.
Among the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group which spearheaded the anti-government protests, much of the attention has focused on former science and technology minister Abiy Ahmed, the expected candidate of the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation (OPDO).
Long seen as a powerless “trojan horse” that did the bidding of stronger factions, the OPDO dramatically increased its political capital last year by reaching out to protesters.
Many expect Abiy would move the EPRDF away from its authoritarian tendencies if elected, Awol said.
But if the Oromos are passed over, Awol warned the OPDO may leave the coalition.
“If OPDO doesn’t get its way, I think there’s a very serious risk that the EPRDF would unravel as a party,” Awol said. “It would be very, I think, explosive for the country.”
The western analyst doubts that Abiy, who came up through Ethiopia’s hardline security agencies, or any other candidate, would bring the fundamental changes the protesters want.
“Whoever comes and whoever goes, I don’t see any change to the establishment,” said the analyst, who believes Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen has the best prospects.
Demeke is chair of the the Amhara National Democratic Movement, which represents the second-largest ethnicity, the Amhara, and is the only party which hasn’t shaken up their leadership in recent months.
Meanwhile, Hailemariam’s party, the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, is expected to run their chairman, former education minister Shiferaw Shigute, on the argument that they should be able to finish Hailemariam’s term.
“If the southerners have the position again, it will be seen as the same as it was when Hailemariam was in power,” said Lovise Aalen, a political scientist at Norway’s Chr. Michelsen Institute.
– The dominant party –
The only party analysts expect not to field a candidate is the one seen as the coalition’s strongest: the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Since leading the campaign to remove the communist Derg regime in 1991, the TPLF has been accused of controlling every facet of government in Ethiopia.
That belief underpinned the protests by the Oromo and Amhara that began in 2015 and resulted in tens of thousands of arrests and about 940 deaths, by the government’s own tally.
Calm returned only after the government imposed a state of emergency in October 2016 that lasted for 10 months.
The TPLF is working behind the scenes to maintain their influence, said political analyst Hallelujah Lulie, and that will likely mean keeping Abiy out of the prime minister’s office.
“They could be having a ‘never Abiy’ movement,” Hallelujah said. “The TPLF will seek to preserve their dominance in the coalition.”