ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopians vote on Sunday in the first elections since a disputed 2005 poll — touted as the country’s first truly democratic vote — ended violently, with 193 protesters and seven policemen killed in street riots.
Analysts are divided on how the parliamentary election will turn out this time, while the government and the opposition have accused each other of violence and intimidation before anyone has even voted.
Here are some possible scenarios:
* Analysts say if the opposition were wiped out in the polls and won only 20 to 50 seats they would immediately say the election was rigged and boycott parliament. If this happens, the eight-party opposition coalition, Medrek, is likely to make noise in the international media and meet Western diplomats in Addis Ababa to ask for help. But what everyone will be watching is whether violence breaks out as it did in 2005.
* It is difficult to predict what Ethiopia’s Western allies — who are vital donors to the poor country — would do in such a scenario. But they will certainly watch to see how widespread protests to the result are and how the European Union election-monitoring mission reacts.
* If it is only the country’s small political elite causing a fuss, it would be easy for Western allies such as the United States and Britain to issue statements saying the election fell short of international standards and to call for measures to be put in place to ensure the next election in 2015 is fairer. They could also ask for key seats to be re-contested.
* If mass protests were to break out, they would be forced to take a tougher line. However, they are unlikely to cut back on aid as much of it is spent on HIV/AIDS and feeding programmes.
* Some analysts say this is the best chance for Ethiopia’s future. If the opposition were to win about a third of the 537 seats, they could probably be persuaded to take their seats in parliament and spend the next five years building their profile.
* The major opposition coalition in 2005, Kinijit, enjoyed huge popularity with the Ethiopian people but boycotted parliament after saying its election loss was rigged. Kinijit’s leaders ended up in prison, accused of sparking the street protests to try to force “unconstitutional change.” One of its top leaders, Berhanu Nega, is in the United States and has been sentenced to death in absentia for overseeing a plot to overthrow the government. Another, Birtukan Mideksa, is in prison in Addis Ababa for violating the terms of a 2007 pardon which released her, Berhanu and the other leaders accused of orchestrating the 2005 violence.
* Kinijit is no more and so it is unlikely Medrek would copy this strategy. Instead, its MPs may enter parliament and hope pressure from Western donors to introduce more checks and balances before the next elections, coupled with the hope the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) might calculate that in 2015, after almost 25 years in power, it could be time to manage a transition.
* This is the worst-case scenario for Ethiopia. It seems that both the support for the opposition, and the street protests, caught Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the EPRDF by surprise in 2005. Critics say the ruling party has spent the last five years consolidating control at a local level, offering people incentives to join and punishing them by withdrawing fertilisers and seeds, or blocking them from civil service jobs if they do not. The opposition also says its members are jailed.
* The government, however, says it has embarked on development programmes in the countryside — electrifying towns and villages and building roads — that will win it popularity. Signs of this progress are certainly evident in the regions.
* If violence were to break out, the government would have a number of options to quell it, including jailing the top opposition leaders again. But this would be a last resort because of the pressure it would bring from donors.
* Analysts say violence is unlikely because, bearing the above in mind, Ethiopians just don’t expect the opposition to win this time. The government also says it is now better equipped to put down any violence using non-lethal force.
* Analysts agree this would be a shock. If an opposition party were to win, it would most likely be Medrek. The handover would take time in a vast nation of 80 million people and one immediate problem would be that Medrek has no clear alternative prime minister — given that it has a rotating chairman.
* The multi-ethnic party — which contains government defectors — has pledged to allow private ownership of land, something the government does not permit. It would be a huge change in policy in a country that relies on agricultural exports and could open the door to more foreign investors.
* Medrek’s leaders plan to start talks with neighbouring Eritrea — a country with which landlocked Ethiopia fought a war from 1998 to 2000 — for access to one of its ports. Ethiopia relies on ports in Djibouti and Somaliland and many Ethiopians regret the country has no sea access via Eritrea — a young country that used to be part of Ethiopia. Some worry that if the negotiations failed, the countries would go to war again.