Ethiopian Opposition May Boycott Vote Unless Leader Is Freed

Imprisoned opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa
Imprisoned opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa

Oct. 10, 2009, By Jason McLure (Bloomberg) — An alliance of Ethiopian opposition parties may boycott elections scheduled for May unless the government releases imprisoned opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa and others they say are political prisoners.

“Birtukan is the spearhead of these political prisoners,” said Gizachew Shiferaw, a member of the Unity for Democracy and Justice party and vice-chairman of the eight-party Forum for Democratic Dialogue opposition alliance. “Unless we take some sort of remedy toward these political prisoners, it will be difficult to look at the upcoming elections as free and fair.”

Birtukan, 35, was given a life sentence in December after the government accused her violating an agreement that freed her in 2007.

Members of the alliance called on Western countries to pressure Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front by threatening to withhold foreign aid. Speaking at a press conference in the capital, Addis Ababa, they demanded negotiations on issues such as the establishment of an independent electoral board, harassment of opposition candidates and supporters and the presence of international election observers.

“We appeal to the international community that what we want is a fair game,” said Merara Gudina, chairman of the FDD.

Hailemariam Desalegn, spokesman for the ruling EPRDF party, declined to immediately comment on the opposition statements. Bereket Simon, the government’s minister of communication affairs, didn’t answer calls to his mobile phone.

Government officials including Prime Minister Meles have repeatedly said that the jailing of Birtukan is a legal matter unrelated to politics and defended the country’s electoral record.

Discredit Elections

“The intent of some of these individuals is not to contest the elections in a serious manner,” Meles said at a Sept. 16 press conference. “The intent of these individuals is to try and discredit the election process from day one.”

Birtukan was first jailed in November 2005 for attempting to overthrow the constitutional order after the country’s disputed 2005 elections led to street demonstrations in which 193 people were killed. She was released in 2007 under a pardon agreement brokered by the U.S. and a group of Ethiopian elders.

Opposition candidates won just three of 3.6 million seats in local and by-elections in 2008, after major parties boycotted citing harassment and intimidation, according to a tally by the U.S. State Department.

Ethiopia received $2.4 billion in official foreign aid in 2007, the last year for which data is available, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Meles’ EPRDF has ruled Ethiopia since ousting the country’s former military regime in 1991.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jason McLure in Addis Ababa via Johannesburg on pmrichardson@bloomberg.net.