In Ethiopia’s upcoming elections on May 24, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition will win in a landslide. Although the ruling coalition allows some political opposition in order to keep the peace, it is larger than its competitors and has substantial government resources at its disposal. Following its victory, the party will work to appease rival ethnic groups, encourage economic growth and ensure Western support.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has ruled Ethiopia since 1991, following its victory in a long civil war against the military junta headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam. Today the party dominates Ethiopian politics. Through its majority in the country’s legislature, the ruling coalition can select the prime minister and Cabinet members as well as control the entire political process, including election outcomes. However, as a concession to appease Western donors, who prefer a degree of democratic rule, the Ethiopian government has made modest space for opposition political parties.
The 2015 elections will be the first for the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front since the death of its creator and longtime leader, Meles Zenawi, three years ago. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who hails from the small Wolayta ethnic group in southern Ethiopia, nominally leads the government. However, a committee dominated by ethnic Tigray constituents, who largely control Ethiopia’s army and security apparatus, will remain Ethiopia’s key governmental body.
The election will enable the Ethiopian government to discredit armed rebel groups allegedly backed by Eritrea, such as the Oromo Liberation Front, which is affiliated with Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, and the Ogaden National Liberation Front, among others.
In Ethiopia’s most recent national elections, in 2010, the ruling coalition won 99.6 percent of the legislature’s 547 seats, with only one seat taken by the opposition and another seat going to an unaffiliated candidate. This time, the ruling coalition is likely to win about 90 percent of the vote, with the remaining seats shared among several opposition parties formed under the ruling coalition’s influence. The Blue party (comprising urban youth, most of whom are in their 20s) and the Forum for Democratic Dialogue in Ethiopia party (a collection of various ethnic groups) are the main opposition forces.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has learned from previous elections to avoid risks that could loosen its control over the country. For example, the 2005 election was relatively competitive: Opposition politicians won in all major urban areas, capturing all the parliamentary seats for the capital, Addis Ababa. When the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front reversed the results to maintain control of the government, the elections ended with street protests and some 200 deaths. Since then, the ruling coalition has allowed opposition victories and supported opposition parties to keep the peace.
This month, another election victory for the ruling coalition will allow it to maintain its firm control of the country and sustain its patronage networks. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front will follow through on its economic development priorities — particularly infrastructure development, including roads, railways, hydroelectric power and irrigation — and aim to maintain stability while fostering a high rate of economic growth. Moreover, the coalition will be able to contain ethnic tensions and competition by giving rival ethnic groups the opportunity to benefit from the growing economy. Ethiopia will also maintain its role as an important counterterrorism ally for countries with shared security interests in the Horn of Africa, such as the United States. In return, the country will continue to receive Western diplomatic and economic support.