Who Will Win the Next Ethiopian Elections?

By Staff Reporter

Ethiopian-Elections-May-2020January 8, 2020 (Ezega.com) – Ethiopia seems to be heading to hold the upcoming general elections in May 2020 on schedule. After various ethnic, regional and religious conflicts, the country went through in the last couple of years, many people had serious doubts about whether the country can and will hold safe and fair elections. Some still do and with good reasons, including the absence of adequate preparations so far by the government. But it now looks more and more likely that there will be elections in May 2020, absent some new and dramatic developments in the next four months.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has repeatedly promised to the Ethiopian people and foreign observers that he will hold free and fair elections as planned. It is unlikely that he will renege on that promise and lose his legitimacy and credibility as well as face the potential for violence and instability that may come with it. The National Election Board of Ethiopia, headed by Birtukan Mideksa, has also been saying that elections will take place on schedule.

Ethiopia is now full of many parties, large and small. Counting the smaller ones, one can easily reach close to 100 inside the country. However, many of them will not qualify for the next national elections. The parties that do will contest the hundreds of national and/or regional seats that are open for grabs.

So, who are the main forces contesting the next elections?

Ethiopia is heading for one of the most contested elections in its history. The outcome of this contest will determine many things, including perhaps the unity and stability of the country for some time to come. These upcoming elections will also tell whether Ethiopia is finally on the doorsteps of democracy where different parties compete and governments change relatively peacefully.

Broadly speaking, the next election is likely to be a contest between national forces and an assortment of regional forces under the banner of ‘federalism.’ The name ‘federalism’ should be understood here to mean ‘greater autonomy’ by some and just a rallying cry by others. None of the main parties competing in the upcoming elections want to dismantle the current federal structure. The question is just between some reform and no reform at all.

The national forces include the newly-formed Prosperity Party (successor to now-defunct EPRDF, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (ECSJ), and other smaller parties. These national parties are set to campaign under the banner ‘one Ethiopian, one vote,’ regardless of ethnicity, region or religion.

The Prosperity Party is a merger of eight regional parties, representing eight regions: Oromia, Amhara, Southern Ethiopia (SNNPR), Somali, Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambela, and Harari. This party should be by far the most dominant party in Ethiopia, given that it represents almost all regions of Ethiopia (except Tigray, so far). And the parties forming it are well-established and experienced within their respective regions. And the party currently holds power in Ethiopia.

Opposing the national forces are regional parties under the banner ‘federalist’ that are currently emerging. The outline of this formation is coming into a sharper focus as we speak. The biggest of these forces is likely to come from Oromia. Recently, three Oromia regional parties have reportedly agreed to form what they called ‘Coalition for Democratic Federalism.’ They include the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), led by Merera Gudina and later joined by the outspoken activist Jawar Mohammed; the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), led by Dawud Ibssa; and the Oromo National Party (ONP), led by Brig. Gen. Kemal Gelchu.

The new coalition has also disclosed that it is negotiating to build further alliances outside its borders. They haven’t disclosed to whom they are talking to, but it is possible that they will reach some understanding with non-Oromia forces to bolster their prospects on the national stage. One potential ally for this group is the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), an organization that is trying to drum up support for its own version of the federalist alliance. In what will surely appear the height of irony to many, these two federalist groups may come together despite their severe, and at times bloody, difference or clashes of the past.

The question then becomes, who will win the next elections?

To answer this question, it is important to first examine the presence of each of these parties in every region and the number of people they represent in each region. In many countries, polls provide some guidance to answer such a question. There is none in Ethiopia. Hence, one has to rely on other metrics, such as organizational strength and reach, to see who is likely to do better than others. The desire for stability among the Ethiopian public is another factor that should not be underestimated. To analyze the situation, we can start from the census data of Ethiopia in 2017. The latest data is likely to be a scaled-up version of this data and will not alter the overall dynamics meaningfully. The data is shown below.

Ethiopian Population by Region in 2017
No. Region Capital City Regional Status Population, 2017 % of Total Pop.
1 Oromia Addis Ababa State 35,467,001 37.64%
2 Amhara Bahir Dar State 21,134,988 22.43%
3 Southern Ethiopia Hawassa State 19,170,007 20.34%
4 Somali Jigjiga State 5,748,998 6.10%
5 Tigray Mekelle State 5,247,005 5.57%
6 Addis Ababa Addis Ababa City 3,434,000 3.64%
7 Afar Asayita State 1,812,002 1.92%
8 Benishangul-Gumuz Asosa State 1,066,001 1.13%
9 Dire Dawa Dire Dawa City 466,000 0.49%
10 Gambela Gambela State 435,999 0.46%
11 Harari Harar State 246,000 0.26%


From the above table, the three largest regions by population in Ethiopia are Oromia, Amhara and Southern Ethiopia Region (SNNPR). Together, these three regions account for about 80 percent of Ethiopia’s population. Sidama zone is splitting from SNNPR, but that shouldn’t be a big factor in this analysis. For now, we will lump them together and see potential scenarios.

The second tier of the three largest regions in Ethiopia are Somali, Tigray and Addis Ababa. These three regions make up about 15 percent of the Ethiopian population.

The above first and second tier of states account for more than 95 percent of the Ethiopian population and will determine who wins the upcoming elections to be held in May 2020.

The biggest prize of all is Oromia. This state accounts for more than 37 percent of the outcome. This region will also likely be one of the most contested places in Ethiopia, perhaps only next to Addis Ababa. Several experienced parties are expected to contest the elections there, including the Prosperity Party (now using the organizational structure of the Oromo Democratic Party, ODP, in Oromia), and the OFC, OLF, and ONP. Given the experience and organizational prowess of these parties, it is difficult to know who will win the majority of seats with some certainty.

The next most important region in Ethiopia is Amhara. Here, the main contest will likely be between the PP, the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA), and, to some extent, the ECSJ. Given the organizational reach of the Amhara Democratic Party (now part of PP), one can envision a scenario where the PP gets the lion’s share of the vote, and the rest going to NaMA primarily, but some to ECSJ and others.

In Southern Ethiopia, there are a few players currently on the ground. Most of these are newer parties formed around the idea of greater autonomy or statehood for their respective zones. The Oromo forces may also have some reach here, although not huge. Given the organizational reach of the formerly SEPDM (Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement), now part of the PP, the PP will likely secure a good portion of the seats in this region as well.

In the second tier of states that account for about 15 percent of Ethiopia’s population, Tigray is expected to be taken by the TPLF, 100 percent. Given the control the TPLF has over this region, it is hard to see any other organization making much inroads, especially in such a short time and given the great anxiety the people of Tigray are feeling these days.

In the Somali region, the governing Somali Democratic Party has been in power for some time. It is now part of the Prosperity Party and should give it tremendous leverage over all other parties. The PP should win a substantial majority of the seats in this region, if not all of them.

Likewise, in Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, and Afar regions, the ruling parties have joined the PP. These are all established organizations with local roots in their respective regions. Therefore, the Prosperity Party should be expected to do very well in each of these regions, perhaps by large margins, against poorly organized and funded local opposition groups.

One can think of many scenarios to see who will win the upcoming elections and form the next Ethiopian government. We looked at various scenarios ourselves and, based on those scenarios, the PP seems to have multiple ways of forming the next government. One is an outright win on its own, after getting more than 50% of the seats in the Ethiopian parliament. The other is by forming a coalition with like-minded national parties, such as the ECSJ, and/or even with independent regional parties such as NaMA and others.

One scenario we considered is where the PP wins 50% of the seats in Oromia, Amhara, Southern Ethiopia Region, Addis Ababa, and Dire Dawa; 80% of the seats in the Somali Region, Benishangul-Gumuz, Afar, and Harari; and 0% in Tigray. The win ratio may vary from state to state, but the aggregate is what matters. This may look too modest for some, but we took it as a baseline scenario. In that scenario, the PP will get a bit more than 50 percent of seats in the next Ethiopian Parliament -- enough to form a government and Dr. Abiy Ahmed re-elected Prime Minister of Ethiopia. In that scenario, Abiy Ahmed’s party will also likely form a coalition with one or two smaller parties, such as the ECSJ, to further strengthen its power.

Under that scenario, the PP may or may not retain the regional government in Oromia state. What is known is the Oromia regional house will not be a rubber-stamp house after the next election. The Oromo federalist coalition will likely get more 20% seats in the federal parliament in this scenario. Together with the TPLF and a couple of other smaller parties, it possible that this federalist coalition will attain more than 30% of Ethiopian parliament – a robust opposition, but not enough to form a government. Even if the OLF, OFC, ONP, TPLF and other smaller parties manage to set aside their differences and maintain a coalition, the most they can reach is about 35% under this scenario. The reason is that there aren’t that many big, viable and like-minded parties left to join such a coalition. None of the national parties such as ECSJ or local parties such as NaMA are likely to join such a platform due to big differences in their outlook.

One other scenario we looked at is where the PP gets 60% of the seats (in some proportion) in Oromia, Amhara, Southern Ethiopia Region, Addis Ababa, and Dire Dawa; and 90% of the seats in the Somali Region, Benishangul-Gumuz, Afar, and Harari; and 0% in Tigray. Under that scenario, the PP will have about 60 percent of the seats in the next Ethiopian Parliament, enough to form a strong government with or without any other coalition partner.

Finally, one cannot exclude the possibility that the PP wins a substantial number of seats but fails to win an outright majority in parliament (50+ percent). In that situation, theoretically, any party can form a government. However, even in that outcome, we believe the PP is far more likely to form the next government than any other group; for three reasons: size, outlook, and continuity. Even if the PP gets, say, 40 percent of the seats, it will be the largest single party in the mix, making it more likely to reach the majority than others. This may happen, for example, if the PP does poorly and wins just 37% of the seats from Oromia, Amhara, Southern Ethiopia Region, Addis Ababa, and Dire Dawa in some mix; and with the rest being the same as the first case we considered above. Smaller parties naturally gravitate towards the biggest one, unless there is something really wrong, that is. And that favors the PP. On outlook, when you look at all parties, the PP has a more centrist outlook than perhaps any other party. The regional parties will look too regional for others to coalesce around (especially for pan-Ethiopia parties). And the other pan-Ethiopian forces may look too radical for the regional parties. That will likely make the PP an acceptable alternative to many. Continuity also favors the PP. People and parties naturally rally around something known and proven. So, if it comes to a choice between Abiy Ahmed (PP), leading the largest block, and another untested politician, the former (who is still in the palace) will look better than the latter. However, this outcome, if it happens, will have a major implication for Ethiopia. Because it may mean the continued fragmentation of Ethiopian politics and further weakening of central authority. And the chance for hitherto unforeseen developments increase in proportion to such fragmentation.

Of course, all of this depends on the situation of the country between now and election time. Any major event or realignment can change the dynamics, including the timing of the election itself. We are also assuming here that the elections if held will be relatively free and fair. And there won't be any interference by other organized bodies inside or outside the country.

Potential Trouble Spots

Currently, there is a great deal of concern among many observers, including foreign bodies, on whether the upcoming elections will be conducted peacefully and fairly. Of special concern is the Oromia region where the contest is likely to be hot. The presence of armed groups in some parts of the region and the numerous incidents of violence and lawlessness observed in the last two years do not bode well for a fully peaceful election.

The Southern Ethiopia region is another hot spot, although to a much lesser degree than in Oromia. There, new parties have sprung up pushing for more autonomy or statehood. These local parties, if contesting, may use the upcoming election to set conditions favorable to them for their eventual demand -- indicating the possibility of localized clashes between the established formerly SEPDM, now PP, and these smaller regional groups.

The other wild card is Tigray. There, the TPLF seems determined to hold the region free of any opposition or contest. As things stand right now, it is hard to see how any Tigrayan opposition group can campaign in the region in any meaningful way. The question then becomes, will the central government led by the PP look the other way? It is going to be a big test for the current government, especially if the PP decides to field candidates to contest some parts of that region.

Livelier Parliament

Regardless of the outcome, the next Ethiopian parliament is likely to be much livelier than any parliament the country has seen in the past. Even if Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s coalition manages to get 60 percent of parliament or better, there will still be more than 30 percent of seats taken over by all kinds of opposition parties. Although it will appear more fractious to a country unused to that kind of parliament, it will nevertheless be in a position to debate important policy issues and may usher a new era in Ethiopian politics – perhaps one that will lead Ethiopia a step in the right direction.

Updated on January 10, 2020.

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