Change is coming to Ethiopia, says Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. It was time the country's political old guard stepped down, he told Africa Confidential in an interview on 3 May. Meles has submitted his resignation and the ruling party discussed it in February - but that does not make it inevitable. If there is a change, it would be more of personnel than policy, he suggested. The issue was not that the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front had ruled for 18 years but that 'the same people have been in positions of leadership throughout the period'. He included himself in 'the old leadership which was leading the EPRDF during the armed struggle and up to now'.
When asked if he was expecting 'a collective transition', Meles replied, 'Yes, I think that the next crucial step needs to be taken,' implying that the older generation faced retirement. Meles has recently repeated that he would like to step down by the next elections. This statement has been greeted with scepticism. He had been less forthright about renewing the leadership - a message that many of his colleagues will not welcome. The EPRDF has ruled since 1991 and many leaders of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the main party in its four-party coalition, have been in positions of power since they took up arms in 1975. No names have officially been named.
Any changes on this scale require an EPRDF congress. Several options would open up regarding Meles' successor (see Box). 'The generation that moved the mountains', as the war veterans that defeated Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam's regime are known, may be growing tired. It seems unlikely that a collective transition could pass unopposed: some in the EPRDF might feel they should take over if Meles left office.
Opposition could also come from closer to home: the Premier's wife, Azeb Mesfin, is now in a controlling position at the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray. She might not relish a diminution of her growing political role, even for the sake of the ruling party's political health.
Leading potential candidates include Seyoum Mesfin, Abay Tsehaye, Addisu Legesse, Tewodros Adhanom and Arkebe Oqubay. All are Tigrayan: ethnicity is an important bargaining chip in this diverse society and despite representing the major nationalities, the EPRDF is dominated by Tigrayans, even though they are nationally outnumbered by both Amharas and Oromo. There are those who think a Tigrayan successor to Meles could widen ethnic divisions that the EPRDF has never been able fully to close.
The question of succession may be largely academic. Leaving the final decision on Meles's resignation to the party offers plenty of room for a change of face. The issue was raised at the quarterly EPRDF Executive Committee meeting in February, attended by an equal number of representatives from each member party: the TPLF, Amhara National Democratic Movement (both EPRDF founding members), Oromo People's Democratic Organisation and Southern Ethiopian Peoples' Democratic Movement.
There was heated discussion but no consensus. Meles's recognition of the need to rejuvenate the EPRDF as a whole demonstrates that he understands the need for a show of democratic change. A new party leader would set an important precedent and mark the first-ever peaceful and voluntary handover of power in Ethiopia.
However, a change of age group might not trigger a change of attitude. Tewodros would ostensibly constitute a departure from the traditional leadership; he was not involved in the student movement and played no part in the liberation struggle, yet he is very close to Meles and would provide no real change of direction. Arkebe took part in the liberation struggle, albeit for less time than others of the old guard, yet he retains more political independence than might be expected.
In any event, the EPRDF has begun to prepare actively for the elections. The government has organised talks on procedure: it is keen to avoid the violence and other problems of 2005, when an impressive pre-electoral process was marred by post-poll violence, followed by the refusal of some elected opposition members to take their seats in Parliament. The opposition has already said that it does not expect a fair deal but although still much divided, some elements have begun organising.
The major challenge may come from the Forum (Medrek) for Democratic Dialogue in Ethiopia (FDDE), an alliance of parties established by former Defence Minister Siye Abraha and former President Negasso Gidada. A central element in the Forum is the Arena Tigray for Democracy and Sovereignty, under Gebru Asrat, an opposition party in Tigray Region which threatens the TPLF in its own heartland.
The other parties in Forum include: Ethiopian Democratic Unity Movement; Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement, led by member of parliament Bulcha Demeksa; Somali Democratic Alliance Forces; the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces, which consists of the Ethiopian Social Democratic Party and Southern Ethiopian Peoples' Democratic Congress (both chaired by Beyene Petros, MP), plus the Oromo People's Congress of MP Merara Gudina; and Union for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), chaired by Birtukan Mideksa.
These parties have all agreed to contest the elections under the Medrek banner while maintaining their own structures and leaders. They thus hope to avoid a collapse like that of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy in 2005. The CUD had never been much more than a veil covering major policy disagreements and competing ambitions; its leaders' inability to put aside these ambitions lost it many supporters. The need for an effective coalition is pressing.
A group of former CUD members led by Birtukan set up the UDJ, which is now in the Forum. Former CUD Chairman Hailu Shawel, who refuses to have anything to do with his former colleagues, has formed the All Ethiopia Unity Party. Yet another splinter, led by Ayele Chamiso, has kept the CUD name. The United Ethiopian Democratic Party-Medhin is renamed the Ethiopian Democratic Party. It is still led by Lidetu Ayelew, who caused its split with the CUD after a confrontation with Hailu Shawel.
Ginbot 7 was founded last year in the diaspora and is not registered in Ethiopia. It is led by Berhanu Nega, the only opposition leader to leave Ethiopia after oppositionists were pardoned in 2007. The 24 April arrests have raised its profile (AC Vol 50 No 9). Most ex-CUD parties suffer from the widespread disenchantment about their infighting; it is uncertain how much support they will get.
Opposition fractures are visible, despite the fledgling alliances. Where power is fiercely contested, this is dangerous. Many oppositionists have little faith that the government will really address their concerns: expanding political freedom; freeing all political prisoners; press freedom and equal media access; neutrality for the National Electoral Board; full and independent judiciary; and freedom of expression. Yet without a concerted attempt at organisation, none of the opposition parties can hope for a favourable outcome to the 2010 elections.
In 2005, the EPRDF made the telling point that the opposition criticised the government but never came up with any serious alternative policies. However, Meles' government has done little to address opposition concerns, then or since. The government has stressed that it is keen to avoid any of the violence that haunted the 2005 elections. This requires dialogue with the opposition and addressing the issues involved in building a democratic system.