Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Battleground Region

By Fikru Helebo

A full year has passed since the May 15th 2005 elections, elections that briefly gave hope for a nation that has never known good political leadership in its modern history. And a lot has been written about the fact that the elections were neither free nor fair and about the political turmoil that ensued in the aftermath of the elections. The fact that the ruling party, the EPRDF, stole victory from the combined opposition* is undeniable to most analysts who follow Ethiopian politics closely. If you are one who still doubts whether or not the EPRDF stole the May 2005 elections from the Ethiopian people, then an analysis of the elections at the Ethiopian News and Views web site here is a good place to start.

In this article I would like to focus on the result of the elections from the Southern region. In my opinion, the result of the elections from the
Southern region (SNNPR), a region constituting at least 20% of the Ethiopian population, is of high importance since the result shows that this is the only region of Ethiopia where the elections were hotly contested by more than two parties in a great majority of the constituencies. The implication of this for the next elections, if they are to be free and fair, is that the Southern region will most likely be the region where the contest for the control of parliament in its current form, with 547 seats, will be the closest, making it the battleground region of the next election.

In the two most populous regions of the country, the two largest opposition groups will dominate the elections without a doubt. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), if it is wise enough to put its trust in the will of the people and enter electoral politics, will most certainly be the dominant party in the Oromo region, where 178 seats are allocated for the region, and the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) with a strong support base among the Amharas will do very well in the Amhara region, where 138 seats are allocated to the region. With 274 seats in parliament needed to form a governing majority, the OLF and the CUD will then need to do well on their own in the other regions or form alliances with other parties of similar persuasion who have strong following in regions other than Amhara or Oromo.

This is where the Southern region comes in to the picture. The Southern region, with 123 seats allocated for it in parliament, is the third largest region in the country and a rich vote mine for a party that can appeal to the seemingly divergent interests of the various ethnic groups that make up the Southern region. Although the Southern region was created in 1992 without the consent of the governed, the 2005 elections have demonstrated that the region has a political clout that rivals that of the Oromo and Amhara regions,
if only the political class of the region know how to take advantage of it. To understand why the Southern region is of great importance for a winning strategy in the next election, it is imperative that one look at the election data for the region from the May 2005 elections which is available at the web site of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE).

Figure 1

The first thing you will notice in Figure 1 is that the EPRDF got 49% of all the valid ballots cast in the Southern region on its way to "winning" 93 out of the 123 seats allocated for the Southern region. Now, if anyone can convince me that one out of two Southern Ethiopians did really choose the EPRDF over the opposition candidates which were available for them, then I will be the first one to congratulate the EPRDF for its victory. This can't possible be true since the EPRDF is deeply unpopular among Southerners. Let alone half the votes, it can not win a quarter of votes in the Southern region in a free and fair election. The EPRDF winning in the South is simply an unthinkable proposition and I will not waste any more of your time to try to convince you that the EPRDF was not the choice of Southern Ethiopians in the May 2005 elections.

The more interesting data in Figure 1 is how well the relatively new party, the CUD, did in the Southern region despite the fact this was its very first entry on the ballot in the South. According to the NEBE figures, the CUD won 18 of the 123 seats for parliament by taking 22% of the 3,664,404 valid ballots cast in the Southern region. Whereas the more established party in the South and one that participated in the May 2000 elections in the Southern region, the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) / Southern Ethiopia Peoples Democratic Coalition (SEPDC), won only 12 seats by taking a meager 10% of all the valid ballots cast in the Southern region, which is 5% less than the votes Southerners gave to candidates other than the four major contenders in the South.

ZoneTotal Ballots CastCUDUEDF/SEPDCSLM
BASKETO LIYU1102524%0%n/a
ALABA LIYU9819110%4%n/a
SOUTH OMO11263216%8%n/a
BENCH MAJI13202910%10%n/a
KEMBATA TEMBARO1596287%44%n/a
GAMO GOFA43623633%3%n/a
Figure 2

Another set of interesting data can be found in Figure 2 above where the percentages of the valid ballots cast in the May 2005 elections is given for the three major opposition parties in each zones of the Southern region. There were more than twice as many valid ballots cast for the CUD (792,633) as there were for the UEDF/SEPDC (363,151). The CUD was strongest in Gurage zone, wining 10 of the 13 seats available by taking 56% of the valid ballots cast. The UEDF/SEPDC was strongest in Hadiya and Kembatta Tembaro zones, winning 12 of 16 seats available and taking 45% and 44% of the valid ballots cast in the two zones respectively. In zones out side of Hadiya, Kembatta Tembaro and Gurage zones, which were stronghold zones for the UEDF/SEPDC and the CUD, the CUD did significantly better than the UEDF/SEPDC, taking 21% of the valid ballots cast to UEDF/SEPDC's 8%. Of particular note was CUD's far better performance in Wolaita and Gamo Gofa zones where the CUD took 29% and 33% of the valid ballots cast compared to UEDF/SEPDC's 6% and 3% respectively.

In Figure 2, it is interesting to note that the total valid ballots cast in Sidama zone (743,604) comprised 20% of the total valid ballots cast in the entire Southern region. This is almost the same as the next two vote rich zones combined (22%). The Sidama zone is the only major area in the South where a party that is based on a single ethnic identity, the Sidama Liberation Movement (SLM), did well by taking 19% of the valid ballots cast. If the elections were free and fair, there is no question that the SLM or other Sidama-based parties would have won most of the 19 seats available in Sidama zone. It is also worth noting that the CUD did well in Sidama, taking 17% of the valid ballots cast in this pivotal zone of the Southern region. The UEDF/SEPDC was not on the ballot in Sidama. It seems that it may have defered to the SLM in Sidama zone.

The election results from the Southern region offer us a lot more than just statistics; I believe it offers us a glimpse into the future of Ethiopian politics. There are two opposing voting trends that can be drawn from these election results. The first and obvious trend is that the CUD has become a party of choice among Southerners who would like to see an end to the ethnicization of politics. The second and less obvious trend is that ethnicity still is a powerful factor in Ethiopian politics as was clearly manifested by the strength the SLM exhibited in Sidama zone. The strong performances of the UEDF/SEPDC in Hadiya and Kembatta Tembaro zones and the dominance of the CUD in Gurage zone can be attributed to ethnic affiliations of the leaderships of the two parties. I believe ethnicity played a role in most of the constituencies where the opposition groups did well throught the country.

I am of the view that the results of the May 2005 elections gave a clear signal to the Ethiopian political class that ethnicity should not be the driving force of Ethiopian politics. However, I am also of the view that it would be utterly stupid for a political party to think that ethnicity does not matter in politics. It does, whether we like it or not! In the evolution of the Ethiopian nation state, we have a long ways to go before ethnicity can be considered a low priority issue as it needs to be. Until we arrive at such a time though, the trick for a successful political party will be to find a pragmatic way to address the aspirations and concerns of the various ethnic groups and balance that with ideas that address their common future. The prime testing ground for this balancing act will most likely be the Southern region.


* I do not believe that a single political party had won the majority of the seats in parliament. The "combined opposition" that I am referring to is the CUD, UEDF and OFDM. Obviously, the CUD did far better than its main rival from among the opposition, the UEDF. The UEDF that participated in the May 2005 election is no more. It has split, albeit unofficially, into two camps: a domestic-based group led by Beyene Petros and a Diaspora-based group that is anchored by the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Party (EPRP). Since the election the CUD has wisely transformed itself from a coalition to a unitary party. However, the imprisonment of its leaders presents the CUD with major challenges ahead.

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