Who are the Ethiopian opposition?

Meles Zenawi and Hailu Shawel in hand shake diplomacy
Meles Zenawi and Hailu Shawel in hand shake diplomacy

Nov 3, 2009  (Reuters) – Ethiopian opposition parties say nearly 450 members have been jailed to stop them standing as candidates in national elections in May next year. The government says they are trying to discredit a poll they have no chance of winning.

Here are some key facts about the opposition in Ethiopia:

* Eight parties are trying to register as a coalition to fight the elections under the name Medrek — the Forum — while retaining their own structures and leadership.

Some Ethiopians worry Medrek is united only in its opposition to the government and there are too many policy differences among its leaders to govern effectively.

* Parties outside the Medrek coalition include the All Ethiopia Unity Organisation and the Ethiopian Democratic Party. Although both are represented in parliament, they have been less active in campaigning than Medrek so far.

* Several ethnicity-based rebel groups operate in the vast country, notably the Ogaden National Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Front. Opposition parties say the rebels are used as an excuse to arrest politicians.

* A group of parties called the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) led the opposition during the last national elections in 2005. When the government declared victory, they said the result was fixed and street protests broke out in Addis Ababa.

* Security forces killed about 200 protesters who Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said were trying to overthrow his government. CUD leaders were jailed after being accused of inciting the violence.

* The opposition leaders were pardoned in 2007 but the CUD broke up soon afterwards. One of its leaders, Birtukan Mideksa, formed the Unity for Democracy and Justice party (now part of Medrek), but was sent back to prison after the government said she had violated the terms of the pardon.

* Another CUD alumnus, Berhanu Nega, went to the United States and formed an opposition group, May 15th, named after the date of the 2005 poll. He was convicted in absentia in August this year of plotting a coup with former and serving military officers.

* Three opposition parties have agreed a code of conduct with the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), but Medrek refused to participate in the talks, demanding bi-lateral negotiations on issues it said were left out, including reform of Ethiopia’s electoral board.

* Meles has dismissed the opposition as “former Mengistu loyalists”, a reference to former communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam whom a rebel group led by Meles and others overthrew in 1991 after a 17-year civil war.

* Medrek has three prominent ruling party defectors in its ranks — former President Negaso Gidada, former Defence Minister Seye Abraha and former regional President Gebru Asrat. Meles has called them “a sprinkling of new spices” for the opposition. (For related stories, click [ID:nL1641132] and [ID:nLT86250]) (Reporting by Barry Malone; Editing by Daniel Wallis)