Ethiopia PM faces huge opposition in bastion

Supporters of Ethiopia's People Revolutionary Front (EPRDF)
Supporters of Ethiopia's People Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) sit in the stands under a portrait of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on May 20.

For the first time since coming to power 19 years ago, Ethiopian Prime MinisterMeles Zenawi and his ruling coalition are facing an electoral challenge in their Tigray stronghold.

By Aaron Maasho,  MEKELLE, Ethiopia (AFP) , Sat May 22, 2010

While there is little doubt Ethiopia’s 55-year-old strongman will retain his job after Sunday’s legislative elections, the heartland of the rebellion he joined when he was 20 is not as united as it once was.

In Mekelle, the capital of the northern region of Tigray, monuments to the fighters from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) who fought against the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam abound.

Life-size statues of men and women holding fire arms and riding on tanks surround the city’s best-known landmark, a monument topped by a bronze sphere that towers over the skyline.

The TPLF and Meles came to power in 1991. In its time as a rebel group it enjoyed almost unanimous support here.

But this time around Meles and his supporters from the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition will come up against some of their former comrades-in-arms, a number of them even blood-related.

“Our families are very close with each other. We have a long history dating back to our grandfathers and grandmothers,” said Aregash Adane, who is running for her Arena Tigray party against Meles in his hometown of Adwa.

Arena Tigray was formed two years ago by disgruntled former EPRDF members who accuse Meles of “betraying the cause” by imposing dictatorial rule.

“We weren’t going the way we were supposed to go in terms of democratic transformation. The country is now led by a one-man, one-party regime,” Awalom Woldu, a former ambassador to Eritrea, told AFP.

Awalom himself will face his younger brother Abay, who remained a staunch EPRDF member and is currently the region’s vice president.

“We meet sometimes but not as frequently as before” the split in the EPRDF, Awalom said.

The tight-knit EPRDF finally split in 2001, with long-running disagreements blowing up as a result of the 1998-2000 border war with Eritrea.

The dissenters accused Meles of taking a soft stance on Asmara when he could have toppled the Eritrean regime and secured access to the port of Assab instead of leaving Ethiopia a landlocked country.

“Instead of securing our interests, he advocated for the Eritreans”, said Arena chairman Gebru Asrat, who also has relatives among his election rivals.

Arena has accused the government of clinging to power at all cost, resorting to killing opposition supporters and depriving them of food aid.

The group recently said one of its candidates was stabbed to death by “government agents”, while another had grenades hurled at his home.

“These elections are beset by problems. Our members are being harassed and intimidated,” Gebru said.

The EPRDF denies any wrongdoing.

“They’ve been fabricating claims for the past eight months. They’ve been invited to carry out investigations but have refused,” Tedros Hagos, head of the party’s political office, told AFP.

Tedros for his part accused the opposition of seeking to foment violence.

“They want a change in government, if possible through street violence,” he said. “They are the ones who betrayed the ideals of the struggle. We fought for equality and established a constitutional system, but they went against it.”

Despite mounting opposition to Meles in his home region, the ruling coalition still expects a clean sweep of the 38 seats reserved for Tigray out of the 547 seats in parliament.