Ethiopian Election: Medrek’s Genesis!

Medrek Masterminds
Beyene Petros (Prof), centre, began to plot the formation of a new coalition, first approaching Negasso Gidada (PhD), near right, former president of the nation under the regime of the EPRDF and now a prominent figure in the opposition and a member of Parliament. The two invited Merera Gudina (PhD), far right, for a brainstorming session at one of their residences. Thus the birth of Medrek, which is now considered by many as a main electoral challenger to the incumbent began. Later on, they brought onboard several parties and prominent politicians to their embrace, including Seyee Abraha, far left, and Bulcha Demekssa, left.

The Forum for Justice and Democratic Dialogue (FJDD), a.k.a. Medrek, was borne out of the frustration of the past political stalemate and despairing outlook of the future, attributed to the electorate’s indifference to politics following the 2005 electoral debacle. A series of talks among leaders of the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF), one of the two opposition alliances during the last national elections, have been held since 2008, in a bid to determine its future course and learn from the mistakes of its rival electoral coalition, the Coalition for Unity for Democracy (CUD).

If taken by the sheer size of the political parties incorporated in the electoral front and the number of candidates it has fielded both for the Federal Parliament (421) and regional councils (861), Medrek rightfully claims to be the largest opposition political group posing a challenge to the incumbent, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Its founders have indeed plotted for this reality since 2008.

Although there were a series of discussions, on how to overcome the political stalemate and public apathy following the last election, held among leaders of the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF), one of the

two electoral coalitions during the 2005 National Elections, it was Beyene Petros (Prof) who was credited for taking the lead in initiating a three-man in-house meeting in mid-2008.

A respected university lecturer and a veteran in Ethiopia’s electoral politics as well as a coalition builder of several fronts in the past, he used to meet Negasso Gidada (PhD) after sessions in Parliament (for both are members of the legislative body). They have known each other for even longer, since the early 1990s, when both served in the transitional government, Beyene as deputy minister of Education and Negasso, a member of the ruling party as minister of Information and later on the president of the republic before he parted ways with the EPRDF in the early 2000s.

Beyene invited Negasso for a brainstorming session, regarding the political road ahead, before the run-up to the coming elections. The latter accepted, but suggested that Merara Gudina (PhD), an ally of Beyene in the UEDF, attend as well. The three met in one of their residences, although whose house it was remains undisclosed. Thrashing out issues largely related to politicking, including the aftermath of the 2005 National Elections, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) debacle, and the future of the UEDF, (then under the leadership of Beyene), they agreed to continue the brainstorming exercise, but only after inviting others prominent in the political landscape.

The second meeting was convened inside the office of the UEDF, on Weatheral Street, near Afencho Ber, a location that became a command centre during the birth of Medrek and its formative years. The location is also its electoral headquarters today.

Two politicians of a different colour were added to this meeting, according to well-informed sources. Seyee Abraha and Gebru Asrat, both founders and former senior leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) but ousted from the ruling EPRDF back in the 2000s, were invited to join the other three.

Early on, the discussion among these politicians was over the need to build a broader coalition, representing the interests and aspirations of voters across the country.They realised that the UEDF whose strong presence in Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNP) and Oromia regional states was too limited to regain the shattered public confidence in the electoral politics of Ethiopia following the 2005 political standoff, according to Beyene. They agreed, during the second meeting, to invite leaders of political parties but only in their individual capacities.

Ethiopian Election Guage
Ethiopian Election Guage

For instance, Beyene brought onboard Buh Hussien, leader of the Somali Democratic Alliance Forces (SDAF), a political opponent to the Somali Democratic League, a party that is an ally of the EPRDF in Somali Regional State. Beyene knew Buh since the early years, during the transitional government. This was also a time when Bulcha Demeksa’s Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) entered into talks with Merara’s Oromo People’s Congress (OPC) for a possible merger. Bulcha was pulled into Medrek through this interparty political process, as Tilahun Endashaw’s Southern Ethiopian Peoples Democratic Union (SEPDU) was influenced by Beyene, its former leader.

Although done quietly, architects of the embryonic Medrek made it known in political circles in Addis Abeba that they were open to consider expressed interest to join them, according to those who closely followed the formative years of the organisation.

They designed a set of criteria to decide who to include. Any individual or party interested in joining them had to accept the unity and sovereignty of the country, respect the rule of law and human rights, uphold the equal rights of individuals and nationalities (the collective), promote multiparty democracy expressed through the free expression of will by the electorate, and commit to coalition building.

Interestingly, these were broad ideals hardly any political party would disagree with. Architects of the emerging coalition rejected applications for membership from those in the opposition camp on grounds that they appeared to be beyond these set criteria. Mesfin Shiferaw’s expressed interest as, the flamboyant leader of the All Ethiopian Democratic Movement (AEDM), was not accepted because his party was seen by the leaders as having a dubious background, while a splinter group from the Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU) was declared unfit for the coalition, a senior leader of Medrek disclosed to Fortune.

Zelele Tsegaselassie’s party, the All Ethiopian Democratic Party (AEDP) does not appear to have been simply lucky or attractive enough to those building coalitions. A splinter group from Lidetu Ayalew’s Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), it was not embraced by the former electoral coalition, the CUD, just as its application was rejected by the leaders of Medrek. The application was made when they were too busy trying to work out their army of candidates.

Political parties were not alone in this dossier of rejections. Two prominent individuals, with political backgrounds during the 2005 National Elections, were not accepted, in spite of their requests. One of them was Alemayehu Redda (PhD), leader of the Ethiopian Democratic League (EDL), one of the four parties that had formed the CUD of the time, sources disclosed. Alemayehu denied the report that he had asked to join.

Other leaders from the main political parties in the opposition bloc, such as Lidetu; Hailu Shawel, of the All Ethiopian Unity Organisation (AEUO); and Mesfin W. Mariam (Prof.), a founder of Unity for Justice and Democracy (UDJ); were neither wanted by founders of Medrek, nor asked to join. The founders simply considered them all as spoilers in the effort to build a coalition, according to a senior politician involved in Medrek.

“Since Ethiopia’s political landscape lacks competent people who do politics with integrity, we had to embrace individuals with experience and expertise,” Bulcha, chairman of the OFDM, told Fortune.

With the six leaders claiming to have been granted a mandate from their respective parties, and the two former bigwigs of the ruling EPRDF (Negasso and Seyee) continuing to meet in the subsequent series of sessions without having the right to vote, Medrek was ready to go. It was formally formed in June 2008, following its members’ acceptance of what they called a minimum programme.

“Medrek is sort of a coalition of parties that compromises on a minimum of political programmes,” Beyene, current chairman of FJDD, taking over from Merara, told Fortune.

The 65-page document containing its political statement of faith has three chapters dealing with political, economic, and social policies. Much of its content has little substantive difference when it comes to the rule of law, respect for human rights, and qualities of democratisation and governance. They are all shared, at least in rhetoric, by all political parties across the political divide, or at least in part when it comes to the ruling party and some elements in the opposition camp.

After about 50 meetings, Medrek included in its fold two more parties. UDJ, under the chairmanship of Gizachew Shiferaw, and the Ethiopian Democratic Unity Movement (EDUM), led by Guesh Gebre Selassie, were the last groups to join.

Formed as a loose coalition, Medrek lodged its application with the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) for registration as an electoral front in September 2009. That was considered to be a landmark moment that brought to an end its formative years.

However, hardly any of the decisions in the evolution of Medrek appeared to be more rocking than the decision by Gizachew’s group to include UDJ in the folds of the emergent coalition. A political party whose leader, Birtukan Mideksa, is behind bars, UDJ is today cluttered with infighting. An insurgent group, spearheaded by Mesfin W. Mariam (Prof.), is fighting back after being suspended by Gizachew, claiming that it is fighting for the preservation of the core values of UDJ, which considers itself the “rightful heir of the spirit of the former CUD.”

One of the controversies that led to the infighting was the decision by Gizachew and his allies in UDJ to join Medrek. The move by Seyee and Negasso to become members of UDJ and get elected (selected is the word used by their opponents) to the leadership immediately after their membership did help a little in bringing reconciliation within the warring factions of the party. Nonetheless, UDJ’s leaders marked their embrace of the two politicians, who once belonged to the ruling party, with a luncheon on November 26, 2010, at the Ghion Hotel, which had a price tag of 17,000 Br, disclosed sources.

Mesfin and his comrades endured physical challenges in their protest outside UDJ’s office when Medrek’s existence was formally declared. Such political confrontation was displayed at the Imperial Hotel, when UDJ leaders tried to conduct meetings in order to discuss issues, including improving the party’s bylaws and replacing missing members.

The confrontation continues to this day. Mesfin did stage a party coup de’tat last week on the leadership of UDJ under Gizachew, after he commandeered the presence of 174 members of the general assembly, gathered on April 18, 2010, inside Kokebe Tsibah Secondary School. This group claims to have fired the leadership under Gizachew and installed new members in its governing council.

This may create a limbo for the leadership of UDJ, and thus its place within Medrek. Nonetheless, UDJ’s involvement in Medrek has always been an issue of dissent and discontent, for it does not agree with the core values shared by the majority of political parties in the coalition including whether or not to redraw the current political administrative structure of the country and their staunch position on the state ownership of land.

Despite the reverence many of the leaders in Medrek have for Article 39 of the Constitution and despite their having been formed along ethnic lines rather than ideological, Seyee and Negasso have made public statements recently snubbing both.

Many inside Medrek are reluctant to say anything in response to these statements, only preferring to circumvent the issue. It is obvious from the reservations displayed by Medrek leaders that they studiously avoid criticising Seyee and Negasso but get quiet.

The UDJ factor and the attempt to blend groups that still have issues over fundamental policy differences left unresolved is seen by some as one of the main points in Medrek’s advancement that could leave a dark spot.

The sharp policy differences within Medrek are evident from the very nature of the parties themselves, and having an absolute united stand might be somehow farfetched, according to a political science lecturer at the Addis Abeba University, who requested anonymity.

“They have to clear out their differences, which are actually basic ones,” he said, but he believes that it is too early to criticise them.

For Beyene, these are issues the leadership of Medrek is well aware of. There are tactical and strategic ways to approach the issues, he argues.

“A loose coalition is not supposed to agree on everything,” Beyene told Fortune. “The aim is to look for a sustainable solution by embracing diversity.”

These are views shared by other leaders in Medrek.

Temesgen Zewdie, a member of UDJ, and now Medrek, argues that these are solutions rather than predicaments for Ethiopian politics.

“There were mistakes that existed in the previous election,” he told Fortune. “We have learned from them, and that will be a vital input to building a democratic society in Ethiopia.”

The lesson is largely what founders of Medrek had earlier talked about, what they ought to get from the experiences of the former electoral coalition, the CUD. In that, the leaders mean staying away from populism and stirring emotions and the politics of hatred, which they claim were hallmarks of the CUD in 2005.

“The way the CUD was formed was at a rate of knots,” Beyene told Fortune. “No one took the time to look at every angle or at problems that could possibly occur.”

Medrek’s officials say that it took them about one and a half years to negotiate, particularly on the most contentious and outstanding issues, such as land use and reform as well as federalism.

Some are sceptical to buy this, however.

“Medrek incidentally is following the same direction the CUD took,” said another lecturer at the Political Science Department of Addis Abeba University.

Such views are not limited to academia and the elite. Voters, out of their political convictions or sheer ignorance of the political process, liken Medrek to the former CUD. Many interviewed by Fortune appear to have come to know about the existence of Mederk and form their views, thereof, through the televised electoral debates and the coalition’s electoral messages on national TV.

Girma Kassaye, a resident in Adama (Nazareth) registered to vote, is one of these voters.

“I have always thought that Medrek and the CUD are the same,” he told Fortune. “It is now that I have come to learn that Medrek is a separate party.”

But many voters are divided in their perceptions of Medrek and thus their positions.

Daniel Taye, a resident of Addis Abeba in his early 50s who runs his own private furniture company, believes Medrek is a party that tries to drag the country into endless hostility by giving promises which are difficult to achieve.

“Most of their promises are not achievable. For instance, the claim to gain a port seems unrealistic,” Daniel told Fortune.

He is referring to the coalition’s desire, articulated in the minimum programme, that it would pursue “peaceful and diplomatic” efforts to reclaim the port of Asseb from Eritrea.

The party’s political direction would lead the country into demise rather than advancing to development and growth, Daniel said. If the party gets elected to office, its leaders will be divided after assuming political power, he thinks.

“Medrek has leaders who have left their previous positions because of differences of opinion created within the incumbent and are congregated around their common hatred and the desire for vengeance,” Daniel said.

However, some of these people are capable of becoming worthy leaders, he wants to accept.

“Negasso seems to care about the Ethiopian people, because he walked out on so many benefits,” he said. “For me, this shows his determination, beliefs, and hopes for the Ethiopian people.”

Girum Belachew, a 30-year old taxicab driver from Addis Abeba, is another voter who has had ample opportunities to observe Medrek’s political standing, both in the media and when the party calls town hall meetings. Girum is interested in the coalition because of Beyene Petros.

“I have tremendous respect for Beyene Petros and believe he has a vision for the Ethiopian people,” he told Fortune.

Nonetheless, he is yet to figure out what the coalition aims to accomplish and wants to fight for, he says. Its leaders mostly engage in raising the CUD’s faults instead of introducing its own views, which people are interested in hearing about, he said.

Girum believes Medrek is leaders have either no plan worth discussing or they want to hide something. He does not believe that they will be able to answer people’s earnest questions on issues such as job opportunities and access to healthcare.

“Personally, Beyene should not be a member of this particular group,” he said.

Medrek’s perceived lack of articulation to clear their positions to voters is shared by many including Getnet Mekonnen, 24, who works in the computer maintenance business and at the same time owns a computer accessories sales shop that also provides secretarial services in Adama (Nazareth).

An unabashed supporter of the ruling party believing that he has benefited from the government’s support of small and micro enterprises (SMEs), Getnet does not care much about Medrek and its agenda.

“I have heard that they focus more on criticising the EPRDF than on actually informing the public of their agenda,” he told Fortune. “It is the EPRDF that has helped me in running my business, and it is this party that has a real plan for this country.”

Voters in Bahir Dar, the seat of Amhara Regional State, say they lack comprehensible information on Medrek. Attributing this to the shallowness of the electoral campaign, voters there say they cannot depict anything tangible when it comes to Medrek.

“I have observed parties like the All Ethiopia Unity Organisation (AEUO) and the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) campaigning better than Medrek,” a registered voter from Bahir Dar told Fortune. “I believe it should focus on stimulating voters.”

Not all voters are critics of Medrek or lack an understanding of what it stands for.

For instance, Zeratsiyon Habte, who is in his late 40s, works as an accountant at a government office. He thinks Medrek has the potential and the leaders with the intellectual capability to lead this country in development, employment opportunities, and peace and security.

“Most of the party leaders were out of the coalition and have a different opinion than they use to have, which can earn them public trust,” he said. “If they win the election, they will work to realise the promises they make now.”

Their political opponents were not that generous in their remarks.

Hailu Shawel has been on the forefront during the past few weeks, attacking the credibility of Medrek’s leaders when he met supporters in town hall meetings in Addis Abeba. He sees them as a collection of unreliable, opportunistic, unpopular, and unconfident politicians. Subjects of his fury were Seyee, Gizachew, and Beyene.

“He (Beyene) only knows how to tear down, not build,” he told voters gathered inside the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), referring to the number of coalitions Beyene has been involved with in the past, many of which he led.

Although from a different direction, such strong criticism comes from Mushie Semu, vice-president of the EDP.

“Beyene is the type of politician who lacks individual strength,” Mushie told Fortune. “He has to rely on others to succeed. That is why he gathered everyone to form this coalition.”

Whether or not Beyene and his allies in Medrek gained electoral strength by forming a loose coalition is yet to be seen on May 23rd.

But the international media portray it as a major electoral challenger to the incumbent and a power to reckon with. Members of the diplomatic community in Addis Abeba see it in that light as well. They see in it a political vehicle that is the only electoral coalition, with eight political parties operating from Tigray to Somali and the densely populated regions of Amhara, Oromia, and the south. Its show of force in fielding the largest number of candidates following the ruling party reveals the extent of its dare.

Leaders of the incumbent claim they are far from taking Medrek as a series challenger to their electoral bid for continuity at the helm of political power in Ethiopia. They argue that Medrek lacks a strong position on fundamental policy issues and has differences rather than similarities on them among its constituents.

“A party that embraces dissent within itself is not what Ethiopian voters want,” Hailemariam Desalegn, a member of the central committee of the EPRDF and one of the electoral officials of his party, told Fortune. “I believe their differences will prevail (remain unresolved).”

Bereket Simon, is a senior and veteran leader of the ruling party, who appears to have taken the backstage during the current electoral battle. Unlike his visible role in 2005, he sees no meaningful challenger to his party during the upcoming national elections.

“I do not think anyone is a real threat to the EPRDF,” he told Fortune.

All the opposition political parties, in his view, have had problems in articulating their programmes when they were put to the test in the past.

“Comparing Medrek and the other opposition parties, in terms of their political programme, they are more or less identical,” Bereket said. “If there were to be any challenge, though, I can be sure that it is not going to be Medrek. I do not believe that they have the ability to convince the electorate.”

The policies Medrek pursues lack clarity, and this is a discrediting factor for the party, Bereket believes. The only threat Medrek poses is that its leaders are in a vague way stirring violence, he alleges.

“In terms of promoting a peaceful process, Medrek is in the worst shape,” Bereket claims.

But the electorate and the general public do not show forbearance for such acts, he claims.

However, Beyene and his fellow coalition leaders give a cold-shoulder to such allegations. They have been making a series of statements hammering on their desire to have a peaceful electoral standoff that is free from “emotion and populism.” They argue that it is a deliberate and conscious decision to let the electorate and their political rivals know that they mean no hatred to anyone.

“That is the lesson we have drawn from the last election,” Beyene told Fortune.

Fortune: By Bruh Yihunbelay
Eden Sahle from Addis Abeba, Daniel Kifle from Adama (Nazareth), and Maazagenet Aschale from Bahir Dar have contributed to this story.