- Hard-line regionalism and interethnic violence will likely surge in the run-up to Ethiopia’s May 2020 elections as competing groups increasingly clash for power.
- Should Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed fail to unite his unpopular ruling coalition, it will weaken his government’s ability to defeat opposition parties that could temporarily derail his liberalization efforts.
- The potential for escalating political violence in the coming months, however, could ultimately force Abiy’s administration to scrap the 2020 vote altogether, further hurting its legitimacy.
Since rising to power in April 2018, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has already overseen several impressive victories — the opening of Ethiopia’s media and political environments being hailed as one of his biggest. His efforts to “achieve peace and international cooperation,” including opening Ethiopia’s relations with long-time enemy Eritrea, even earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in recent weeks. But unfortunately for Ethiopia’s new leader, no amount of accolades will protect him from the bitter campaign his regional rivals are gearing up for ahead of elections slated for May 2020.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s ongoing efforts to open Ethiopia to the world have captured the imaginations of foreign governments and investors alike. But recent increases in ethnic violence have ratcheted up fears that the country is being torn apart at the seams. Whether Addis Ababa can hold the country together before elections in May 2020 will serve as a litmus test for its ambitious economic and political liberalization push.
The Violent Price of Progress
On a continent where authoritarian leaders still abound, Abiy has given rise to hopes that Ethiopia might soon become Africa’s next big success story. As part of this push, the prime minister confirmed in October that the country will, as promised, hold free and fair elections in May 2020. But there are concerns that Ethiopia’s budding democracy may be crumbling beneath the weight of escalating political violence.
Interethnic violence in Ethiopia soared to sky-high levels under Abiy’s predecessor, forcing millions of citizens to flee their homes. But recent efforts to improve the situation have lagged amid the increasingly virulent rhetoric of the country’s ethnic and religious hard-liners. At the heart of this dispute is a brewing battle over what political system Ethiopia should have: one based on greater centralization, or one based on more decentralized ethnic federalism. When it comes to the former, years of authoritarian leadership have bred deep mistrust of centralized rule, particularly among the country’s youth and several prominent ethnic groups.
As a result of local frustrations, key parties in the country’s longtime ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), are now wildly unpopular in their local constituencies. Abiy’s Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and the Amhara Democratic Party, in particular, are both viewed by their respective regional populations in Oromo and Amhara as subservient to a largely unresponsive and corrupt political machine in Addis Ababa. Indeed, if elections were held today, these EPRDF parties would likely lose to regional opposition groups, thus threatening the prime minister and his allies’ control over the country.
A Hail Mary Rebrand
To avoid such a catastrophe, Abiy is now scrambling to unify the EPRDF’s coalition parties — which also include the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of the Tigray region and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement of the Southern region — into a single party called the Ethiopian Prosperity Party (EPP). The strategy behind this bold move is threefold:
- It rebrands the EPRDF’s unpopular coalition parties by shedding his government’s association with the former regime.
- It steers power away from regional governments and toward a more centrally governed Ethiopia.
- It provides Abiy with his own national platform to run on instead of relying on his shaky regional support in Oromia.
However, getting all of these coalition parties on board won’t be easy. The TPLF, for one, had been the dominant military and political force in Ethiopia for 25 years before protests in Oromo and Amhara eventually paved the way for Abiy’s rise. And since then, Abiy’s administration has largely undermined Ethiopia’s formerly Tigray-dominant system, which has naturally created a lot of enemies for the prime minister in the region. The TPLF has thus held out on joining Abiy’s EPP, likely in an attempt to extract a better deal. But even Abiy’s own party, the ODP, has resisted signing on to the rebrand, probably out of fear that unification would only increase the Oromo population’s mistrust of the party.
Such concerns are warranted, as Abiy’s EPP proposal is high-risk and doesn’t necessarily guarantee his political survival. Should the prime minister beat the odds and eventually succeed in unifying the ruling party, he will probably win votes in the large cities such as Addis Ababa, Hawassa, Bahir Dar, Dire Dawa and Harar, as well as among small ethnic groups that feel threatened by the shift of power toward Oromos. But whether that will be enough to drown out the hard-line ethnocentrism being peddled by rising opposition parties is far from certain. On the flip side, failure to unify could result in an even weaker and more fragmented ruling coalition that could collapse, further slimming the chances that EPRDF could muster enough votes to pull off a victory in May.
Pressing Pause on Liberalization
Should his party lose the 2020 vote, Abiy has promised that his administration would peacefully hand over the reins. Such a scenario would initially open the floodgates to a raft new parties all vying for control in Addis Ababa — throwing the country’s ongoing economic and political liberalization process into question. But while this shift may spook investors at first, Ethiopia’s lawmakers will likely return to finish Abiy’s job.
From the country’s stubbornly high inflation rates and ongoing foreign exchange shortages (among other systemic distortions), the country has arguably outgrown its developmental state model. Whatever power players end up rising to the top will eventually find that liberalization is the only way to jump-start Ethiopia’s private sector and create more jobs for their desperate constituents. This reality will thus likely compel the new leaders (save for those from the Tigray-dominated system) to continue building out the private sector as the new engine of growth, while cutting the enormous amount of red tape suffocating the country’s economy.
But as Abiy fights for his political survival ahead of the 2020 polls, there are signs that his economic reforms and liberalization efforts have already taken a backseat to the country’s angst-ridden political climate and surging violence. Abiy’s attempted EPRDF merger and other eleventh-hour efforts to secure reelection are increasingly sucking up the time of Ethiopia’s policymakers. While not overtly stated, the political games occupying Addis Ababa’s attention were almost certainly behind its decision to forgo attending several recent high-level affairs, most notably including the recent Africa Investment Forum in Johannesburg.
This focus on politics over investment promotion will likely continue until after Ethiopia holds its election. Moreover, should the polls yield any ensuing instability (such as a lack of clarity over who controls the government), it could further derail liberalization efforts for the foreseeable future — possibly causing Ethiopia to miss out on capitalizing on a notable uptick in foreign investment interest in the country and the broader Horn of Africa region.
Preparing for Battle
Serious questions exist over whether Ethiopia can even pull off free and fair elections in 2020 given the country’s dire security outlook. The violence has recently become so acute that Ethiopia now tops the list of countries with the most internally displaced persons in the world. But perhaps even more worrying is how renewed clashes often thwart government efforts to resettle the millions of Ethiopians seeking shelter from the chaos.
As the election edges closer, however, the highest risk of violence will be during the campaign season. Deadly attacks and clashes have already occurred, and there are signs the situation will worsen. Ethiopian authorities have noted serious upticks in the number of weapons flowing into the capital of Addis Ababa, even as they step up efforts to halt the illicit arms trade. But this problem is also no doubt brewing elsewhere as rival ethnic groups start battening down the hatches ahead of the election. Thousands of weapons have so far been seized in the country’s east and west. And there are reports that the increasingly militarized population in the Amhara region is acquiring firearms from nearby Sudan.
Ethiopia’s eager young leader has found himself lodged between a rock and a hard place — the rock being his democratic desires, and the place being the reality of Ethiopian politics.
This increasingly dangerous security climate would make it all but impossible to hold truly “free and fair” elections in May. And there are few signs that the government will be able to effectively stabilize the situation before then. But despite these risks, Abiy will still be wary of scrapping the elections altogether, as the ballot box is the only place where his administration can obtain the popular mandate it needs to legitimize its rule. Then again, such a mandate will only be viewed as legitimate if it is born of an equally legitimate election — that is, one not held against the backdrop of intimation campaigns, polling booth attacks and bloody political clashes that could ensue should Ethiopia succumb to a preelection melee.
Suffice it to say that Ethiopia’s eager young leader has found himself lodged between a rock and a hard place — the rock being his democratic desires, and the place being the reality of Ethiopian politics. But in his brief time in power, Abiy has already opened Ethiopians’ eyes to the potential of a liberalized future. And by planting that seed, his successors will be hard-pressed to go back to the way things were.