Despite the tangible successes Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed achieved at the domestic and foreign policies level's since he took office in April 2018 and his 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, he still faces numerous challenges. Some of these challenges pose a direct threat to his future in power, as well as Ethiopia's stability, especially as the country prepares for parliamentary elections in August 2020. This has made the Ethiopian political scene more ambiguous about the future of the ruling elite in Addis Ababa, and the prospects and limits of any political change.

Pre-Elections Preparations

In a step towards reinventing the political balance of power in the country, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced at the end of last November (2019) the birth of the Prosperity Party, which was formed as a successor to the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. Prior to the announcement, Abiy had proposed merging the four parties that make up the ruling coalition into one party based on the concept of citizenship transcending ethnic fault lines. The proposal culminated in three parties signing the declaration of the new party. These three parties, the Oromo Democratic Party, the Amhara Democratic Party and the Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement, represent about 70% of the total population of Ethiopia.

On the other hand, the Tigray People's Liberation Front stood against the one party idea and refused to join it, along the lines of other parties in the ruling coalition. But the opposition was not limited to Tigray People's Liberation Front only, as some key Ethiopian figures announced their rejection of the new party, namely the Minister of Defense, Lemma Megersa.

In reality, the new party may face challenges in translating its manifesto on the ground, particularly its ability to bring influential regional elites under the umbrella of the Medemer philosophy coined by Ahmed, which means unity and synergy in the Amharic language. Other challenges relate to the growing discontent among the Oromo ethnicity, to which Ahmed belongs, of his failure to address their grievances. Also, another ethnic group, the Tigrayans, rejects Ahmed's policies and seeks to topple him, especially after Tigray People's Liberation Front left the ruling coalition.[1]

On the other side, Ethiopian opposition parties started to move and set up their new alliances. After the opposition rejected amendments approved by Parliament in August 2019 to impose more restrictions on the formation of political parties by increasing the number of signatures required to register a party, the opposition also began to form alliances ahead of the next general elections. Accordingly, the "Hibir Ethiopia Democratic Party" was announced in May 2019, comprising five parties: Ethiopian National Transition Council, Ethiopian Public Movement, Tusa Ethiopian Renaissance Democratic Organization, Omo People’s Democratic Union, and South Ethiopia Green Stars Coalition. Another opposition party group has also formed a new coalition called "Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice" led by Berhanu Nega, leader of the "Ginbot 7" movement. The coalition included: Ginbot 7, All Ethiopian Democratic Party (AEDP), Semayawi Party, New Generation Party (NGP), Gambella Regional Movement (GRM), and Unity for Democracy and Justice. All of these developments reflect the extent of division among Ethiopian opposition parties, which may undermine their chances in the upcoming elections.[2]

However, Jawar Mohammed's position remains the best among the Ethiopian opposition and, in fact; he became a threat to Abiy Ahmed. Nevertheless, Jawar Mohammed basically tends to speak for one ethic group, Oromo, unlike Abiy Ahmed who is pursuing a larger popular bloc. Jawar Mohammed enjoys wide support among the Oromos, given his status as the leader of the protest movement that brought an end to the rule of "Hailemariam Desalegn" and helped Abiy Ahmed rise to power. In October 2019, the rivalry between the two men took a sharp turn when the incumbent prime minister, while addressing the parliament, criticized press freedoms and the role played by Jawar Mohammed although the PM fell short of directly naming Mohammed. Afterwards, the bodyguards of Mohammed were recalled by the government triggering protests in the Oromia region denouncing Abiy Ahmed's move. These protests left a heavy death toll of about 70 people, according to the Ethiopian police.[3]

Among the problems that Abiy Ahmed has yet to face is the Tigray People's Liberation Front's insistence on pursuing a center-oriented economic model, so it has made saving the federal constitutional arrangement the main focus of its endeavors. In response to the formation of the Prosperity Party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front held a conference of pro-federal forces, in an initial step toward forming a federal coalition as an alternative to the new party.

Moreover, there are other obstacles that may threaten the peaceful exit of the three parties in the ruling coalition, who have announced joining the new party of Abiy Ahmed. Among these obstacles is the current division within the Oromo leadership between those who believe in the rhetoric of Abi Ahmed versus those who cling to the old nationalist discourse.

Possible Scenarios

According to the current political landscape in Ethiopia context, four possible scenarios can be envisioned for the upcoming parliamentary elections:

  • First Scenario: The new party of Abiy Ahmed winning a majority in parliament. This scenario would mean, if it materializes, that Abiy Ahmed would tighten his grip on power in Ethiopia and control all joints of the state, which would be further established by external support for the man.
  • Second Scenario: The failure of any party to win a majority that enables it to form a government alone. This scenario is expected to open the door to more internal conflicts, which, if they veer off political competition, risk the eruption of armed confrontations.
  • Third Scenario: Jawar Mohammed and the opposition wining a parliamentary majority. Although the possibilities for this scenario are weak, it remains valid, especially with the increasing opposition to Abiy Ahmed from various parties, including the leader of the Ethiopian army, as well as the Oromo ethnicity to which Abiy Ahmed himself belongs. The chances of this scenario being realized may increase if there is a consensus between Jawar Mohammed, the opposition parties and the Tigray People's Liberation Front, which will create a new political scene in Ethiopia. However, this may remain contingent on the stances of international and regional powers, which still show a tendency to support Abiy Ahmed.
  • Fourth Scenario: Postponing the elections indefinitely. This is the worst scenario, as it may increase the prospects of a civil war, the results of which are unknown.

Conclusion

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed faces many domestic challenges exacerbated by a "liquid" security situation. These include ethnic conflicts that threaten the unity and integrity of the country as a whole, as well as the escalation of separatist calls and border terrorism.

In this turbulent context, Abiy Ahmed's internal competition intensifies in the upcoming parliamentary elections, especially amid rising voices criticizing his anti-corruption seen as an attempt to exclude the Tigrayans from the state’s institutions. Furthermore, it appears that Abiy Ahmed lost part of his popularity among the Oromo ethnicity to his rival Jawar Mohammed, mainly because of his attempts to establish a central system run by a single party. Hence, the choice between maintaining ethnicity-based federalism advocated by Jawar Mohammed or eliminating it under the pretext of citizenship under central rule by Abiy Ahmed and his new party became the title of the confrontation between the two parties.

In general, it appears that the one-party proposition does not provide a different meaning when it adopts the representation principle. The challenge remains if the change process lacks sufficient maturity needed to ensure that the survival of the Ethiopian state is not threatened. This is particularly important in light of the deep-rooted divisions within the revolutionary front. With Abiy Ahmed's departure from the historical bloc of Ethiopia, this places an additional burden on national integration given the parties’ full understanding of political and social differences. Consequently, the establishment of a new system on the basis of proportional representation may not address the disparity in the representation of Ethiopian ethnic groups in executive positions, where majority groups remain dominant in senior positions. In this sense, the shift towards a single party rule may not help resolve the dilemmas of national integration in Ethiopia in the foreseeable future.

 

[1]  Hamdi Abdel Rahman, “Transformation Drama in Ethiopia: Two Views From Within,” (qiraatafrican), December 3, 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/37FuZrO

[2]  Ahmed Askar, “The Troubled Interior: The Second Term and Abiy Ahmed’s Future in Power,” (qiraatafrican), October 22, 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/2u3bT1a

[3] Rahma Hassan, “Jawar Mohammed’s 2020 Elections Bid and Abiy Ahmed’s Prospects,” Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies, November 21, 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/2SUZIfn

 

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