By Fikru Helebo
In countries where multiparty politics is practiced, a political party will try to put its principles into practice by fielding candidates for political offices and winning a majority of the seats in legislatures. In Ethiopia, democracy and multiparty politics are fairly new concepts, and the country experienced its first genuinely contested elections only in the year 2000, albeit it was limited to the Hadiya, Kembatta and Tembarro regions in Southern Ethiopia and a few Woredas in Addis Ababa. The main opposition party contesting in the elections of 2000 in Southern Ethiopia, and for that matter in all of Ethiopia, was the SEPDC. Southerners, irrespective of their ethnic background, were filled with pride when the SEPDC registered a first in the history of modern Ethiopian politics when its candidates won 9 seats to the federal parliament, and by so doing the SEPDC proved to Ethiopians everywhere that it is, indeed, possible to achieve their political objectives by engaging in electoral politics, even under conditions that are not favorable to the opposition parties.
Unfortunately, the euphoria of election success in that small corner of Southern Ethiopia did not last long. The ruling party, the EPRDF, understood very well the significance of its defeat in Hadiya, Kembatta and Tembarro areas in 2000 and the implications of this defeat with regard to its monopoly of political power and, so, it set about to nip SEPDC’s success in the bud by making Hossana, the capital of Hadiya region, a military garrison and a staging ground for persecuting SEPDC’s supporters accross the region with impunity. This persecution caused more than a thousand young Hadiya, Kembatta and Tembarro supporters of the SEPDC to leave their homes and seek refuge in countries beyond Ethiopia’s borders. Having suppressed all opposition activities in Hadiya, Kembatta and Tembarro areas, the EPRDF then easily “won” the uncontested local elections of 2001 in textbook fashion.
EPRDF’s severe clampdown on SEPDC’s supporters in 2000 and 2001 had the effect of crippling SEPDC’s activities in the Southern region as a whole. Leaders of the SEPDC at the grassroots level, who deserve most of the credit for the success of the SEPDC in the 2000 elections, understandably became demoralized. In early 2003 I had the opportunity to witness first-hand the demoralizing effect of EPRDF’s repression on SEPDC’s grassroots leaders on my visit to Hossana. The morale breakdown I witnessed did not surprise me since I had expected it. What surprised and baffled me, however, was the lack of support these grassroots SEPDC leaders were getting from SEPDC’s top leadership. It was apparent to me that the grassroots leaders throughout the South were left to fend for themselves by SEPDC’s national leadership and, by the time the 2005 elections approached, it was clear that the SEPDC grassroots leaders were a disorganized bunch. What was most disturbing to me in the period between 2001 and 2005 was the fact that the SEPDC’s top leaders were busy building alliances with other parties, a number of which have had little or no appreciation for the very reason the SEPDC was established in the first place, while ignoring the needs and views of the SEPDC grassroots leaders that made the result of the 2000 elections possible. [I am all for building political alliances to achieve a certain common objective, the objective for the Ethiopian opposition being the defeat the EPRDF in an election. However, I do not believe abandoning one’s grassroots support base is the way to build alliances.]
The May 2005 elections are considered by many a watershed moment in the history of the country, and I do concur with this view. However, I would like to remind the reader that SEPDC’s performance in the 2000 elections was a precursor for the performance of the opposition in the 2005 elections. While I was disappointed that the political party I had supported for a long time and one that spearheaded the aspirations of millions of Southerners in the last decade failed to make gains in the 2005 elections, I was delighted to see other parties who are committed to democratic pluralism in Ethiopia do well. But, as a Southerner looking towards the future, I feel that SEPDC’s poor performance in the 2005 elections coupled with its leadership’s unwillingness to admit the mistakes of the past four years, which led to the poor performance, and the leadership’s lack of desire to make the necessary corrections that will enable the SEPDC to be a genuine voice for Southerners again, has put the shared core belief that gave birth to the SEPDC in 1992 in grave danger.
What is even more distressing to me is that this shared core belief, a cause for which many precious lives were lost and for which thousands suffered imprisonments and persecution, is currently being tainted by the continued participation of SEPDC members in Meles’s parliament. If the eleven SEPDC members continue their participation in this parliament without adequately addressing the desires of the overwhelming majority of the Southern electorate to stay out of it, I can predict with reasonable degree of certainty that the SEPDC will inevitably be considered by most Ethiopians to be an organization that is engaged in aiding and abetting the suffering of Ethiopians at the hands of a hated regime.