With Birtukan gone, smooth sailing for Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi(blog)

Ethiopia’s opposition UDJ party, completely wiped out at last year’s disputed election, says it is regrouping.

At a recent news conference, it announced it plans to rebuild its depleted ranks with young people, analyse the mistakes of the past and ensure that it’s never again hampered by a lack of leadership.

But that last one is going to be pretty difficult. The absence of Birtukan Mideksa, its charismatic former leader who was freed last October after a near two-year stint in jail, was all too visible to ignore.

After a visit to South Africa earlier this year, party chiefs say she is now on her way to the United States for “psychological treatment.”

The 36-year old former judge was one of dozens of opposition officials imprisoned in 2005 blamed for sparking violent protests on the streets of Addis, in which 198 opposition supporters and seven policemen were killed.

They were pardoned en mass in 2007 but Birtukan was banged into jail again in 2008 for allegedly reneging on pardon conditions in speeches she made in Sweden and Germany.

This latest prison stretch, which she described as “horrible, really horrible” and during which she was for some time kept in solitary confinement, seems to have taken its toll on the single mother.

Ethiopian opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa with press
Ethiopian opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa speaks to reporters from the window of a prison van after being freed from prison in Addis Ababa, October 6, 2010.

Now, with its most appealing leader gone and elections five years away, the opposition is banking on economics to undo Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and making vague references to the North African uprisings.

“The demise of Mubarak’s regime came through street protests,” they say in a line that sulky officials will surely repeat over and over again.

“There are too many economic problems: inflation, unemployment… When they are too much, it may explode,” Birtukan’s replacement, former president Negaso Gidada, told me recently.

Indeed, it was the 2005 street protests that came closest to ending the reign of Meles. But those polls pitted Meles against a rival group that commanded massive urban support due to its “intellectual” credentials.

The opposition in 2011 is a only a shadow of what it was then.

Though foreign rights groups complain about crackdowns on the opposition, most analysts believe there is little chance anyone can knock Meles off his perch or that the opposition has any chance of inciting protests.

Meles and his party won all but two of 547 parliamentary seats at the elections last year and, though there were allegations of voter intimidation and use of state coffers from the ruling party, the opposition’s aging leadership appeared impotent and divided, squabbling over which economic policies could woo voters.

I particularly remember one news conference when the main coalition of eight parties chose a leader. No sooner did he finish his speech than other leaders started raising their hands, eager to disassociate themselves from what they said was not the “right way”.

“Actually Mr. Chairman, we haven’t agreed on that issue,” one of them said, wasting no time in making differences heard.

Hardly convincing, especially when they were up against the witty Meles, a darling of the West for his insights on economics.

As for Meles, he has already announced that the next five years will be his last – his second such claim. He also seems to be banking on “generational change” to elongate his party’s two-decade dominance.

Some Ethiopian critics, though, doubt he’s telling the truth.

So how do you think Ethiopia’s politics will play out over the next five years? Will the lack of genuine competition hurt Ethiopia’s push for democracy? How about Meles? Is it now smooth sailing for him?

Source: Reuters.com

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