By Kirubel Tadesse, Capital Ethiopia
In a report presented to parliament last week, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi proudly predicted further rapid economic growth accompanied by a heavily reduced rate of inflation. The PM also said favourable conditions have been set for the conduct of elections which are peaceful, democratic and credible, as he warned opposition parties not to resort to illegal tactics.
Opposition MPs derided the economic claims, suggesting the figures were unbelievable, and that even if they were accurate, the rewards have not reached the majority of the populace. On the political front, allegations of EPRDF intimidation were made, even by cosignatories of the code of conduct. Prime Minister Meles on Tuesday predicted that another double digit rise in GDP growth will be recorded this fiscal year.
Opposition figures rejected the assessment, with some questioning the numbers national financial institutions are releasing and other claiming that the impressive statistics have not been matched with an improvement in many citizens’ lives.
Meles, presenting a much anticipated but rather short nine month federal government performance report to parliament, announced that a 10.1 percent GDP growth would be recorded this year. This would be the seventh year in a row the growth rate has been above 10 percent. He also predicted that this time the growth rate would be accompanied by a rate of inflation lower than 10 percent.
The current record 64.5 billion birr federal budget came amidst pressure from international monetary institutions to cut public expenditures, a call echoed by opposition groups in the house.
In addition to support for the regions, 29.1 and 14.4 billion birr were allocated for capital investments and recurrent expenditures, respectively. This budget ignored suggestions to reduce spending in an attempt to curb the rampant inflation that once stood second only to hyper-inflated Zimbabwe.
This week, a vindicated PM predicted that the impressive rate of growth could be maintained without creating inflationary pressures.
“The average annual inflation rate had slowed to 3.9 percent, bringing down inflation more than anticipated,” Meles explained in the eight page report, adding that his government had been successful at achieving the twin targets.
This achievement, however, is not ‘real’ for some opposition MPs, such as Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) parliament whip Legesse Biratu and Bulcha Demeksa from the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM.)
“Such a miracle has been done only by nations like Korea, Japan and China. The Chinese themselves are not even doing it now. How is it possible for the Ethiopian economy to attain such huge growth?” Bulcha asked, suggesting the economic growth was too miraculous to believe.
“If there is the said growth why did we see fuel subsidies being lifted? Sugar, teff and other commodities becoming unaffordable? Yes, there have been infrastructure developments, but while the road network is expanding our stomachs on the contrary have shrunk,” Legesse said in a strong rejection of the report.
Ethiopian Democratic Party leader Lidetu Ayalew also wondered skeptically: “If the economy is growing above 10 percent this year despite various challenges seen in the nine months, where would it be if the challenges did not exist?”
Dr. Merera Gudina, chairman of the biggest opposition group, the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces, totally rejected the projected GDP growth: “Nobody is buying the claimed economic growth anymore; people are saying ‘it is both food and power rationing’.”
Unity for Democracy and Justice Party vice chair MP Temesgen Zewdie had ideological objections to the government’s economic management: “We established the government to lead foreign policies and protect the land’s sovereignty, not to be in the business of selling soap or sugar. What is now being done, for example in the sugar market, is we are being told where to buy, how much to pay for and who should sell – this is not how a market economy works.”
Meles blasted the rejection of the opposition, even questioning the professional integrity of the MPs.
“MP Bulcha himself answered it: we are growing like China, like Korea. How did we do it? Like China like Korea – by not swallowing neo-liberal ideals without chewing. We rejected that the government should just be a guard, but also has to play a part filling gaps in the economy when they emerge.”
Meles further explained that when economic growth surges it is expected for some supplies to be strained, but this creates an opportunity for further growth later on.
The shortage seen in sugar, for example, according to the PM, came despite the country currently producing more than it ever has done and even stopping exports: “The shortage came because the economic growth led farmers who never tasted sugar before to start purchasing it.”
The PM indicated that some other shortages follow the same pattern: From its predecessors, who had over 70 years, the government inherited an electricity generation infrastructure that had a 370 megawatts capacity. Now, despite having tripled that capacity, there is a power shortage in the country.
“There was not a power shortage under the previous regime because there was no development,” Meles said.
The PM added currently the government is supplementing the economy when it needs to boost supply, but that these deficiencies also leave an opportunity for future economic growth.
While insisting the way forward should be to continue to control inflation so it stays under 10 percent, and increasing the income of the population by pressing for further rapid expansion, Prime Minister Meles admitted there have been imbalances in the distribution of the growth.
According to the PM, gradually correcting the imbalances created by high inflation in the past few years should be among the government’s future objectives. Focusing on some vital sectors of the economy, the PM said though the eight months’ export performance showed only a 21 percent increase, he remains ‘hopeful’ it will meet the target of 25 percent. The PM’s report also touched on other major undertakings of the federal government, ranging from successful efforts to mobilise resource to salvage farmers affected by intermittent and uneven distribution of the meher rains, to social development projects ensuring expansion and quality of education and health services.
In what is likely to be the PM’s last appearance in parliament before the May election, Meles and opposition leaders took the opportunity to fiercely criticise each other. A notable, but rather embarrassing, exchange between two of the nation’s elite politicians was when PM Meles and MP Temesgen debated the correctness of the latter’s pronunciation of ‘fiscal’ as ‘physical’.
Medrek warned as opposition rounds on EPRDF
Referring to recent efforts, including the landmark code of conduct for political parties, the ruling EPRDF chairman PM Meles told the parliament panel that favourable conditions have been set for the conduct of elections which are peaceful, democratic and credible.
The opposition parties, however, including moderate groups who cosigned the code with EPRDF, on the contrary blasted the ruling party for a chain of illegal maneuvers extending to rural constituencies designed to alter the outcome of the poll. Some have already given up on the fairness of the upcoming poll.
The country’s first national election after the disputed 2005 poll that claimed hundreds of lives in post-poll violence is set for May 23.
Medrek versus EPRDF
The eight groups coalition, Medrek, the bitter rival of the ruling EPRDF, told PM Meles during the session that it sees no prospect of free and fair elections.
“Unless a miracle happens and things shift dramatically, we do not see any prospect to see free, fair and democratic elections in the coming poll,” Merera Gudina, who is a parliamentary candidate of Medrek, said after hearing Meles’ report.
In the last parliament battle before the poll, Meles said Medrek lacks the moral authority to speak about the conduct of free elections after failing to sign the code for political parties.
Four parties, including EPRDF, signed a code of conduct for political parties which later became a binding law. Medrek members opposed negotiations that resulted in the code, though they said they do not have anything against the code’s content.
Medrek elite member, the former president Negasso Gidada (PhD), accused the diplomatic community, particularly the British Ambassador, of failing to back negotiations that did not solely focus on the code.
Medrek had pushed for more agenda items, including the case of the jailed Birtukan Midekssa, it said is equally important for the nation’s infant democracy. But more notably, Medrek sought to negotiate with the EPRDF one to one: “There are two real alternatives in the poll, Medrek and EPRDF, the rest are only pacemakers,” Merera has said, while campaigning in Addis Ketema Sub City of the capital.
“Time and again you were caught red handed blaming EPRDF after your own factions’ violence,” Meles said, rejecting claims made by Medrek candidates.
The parliament speaker noted it was only not to disrupt Merera’s speech that he allowed his claims to be heard, as the house prohibits members from presenting allegations without evidence.
For months Medrek has claimed its candidates are not only being arrested and turned back from registering in the constituency they were born, but are being attacked as well. In the worst incident, a candidate contesting a parliament seat in Tigray was killed.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission conducted an independent probe into the case and released a 27 page report about the incident that claimed the life of Aregawi Gebreyohannes. The report released this week said the probe revealed that it was an ordinary homicide and the perpetrator has already received a prison term of 15 years. Including in the investigation were testimonies of close relatives of the victim.
Gebru Asrat, chairman of Medrek’s member party, Arena Tigray for Democracy and Sovereignty, says there needs to be an independent probe: “The victims was arrested three times before the murder, another candidate was harshly beaten. Are they denying this?”
Despite the claims by Medrek, EPRDF says law breaking parties are frustrating its members and the public.
“We will try to be patient to not hurt the electoral process’s image. After the poll, if necessary, we will go to the courts with our charges after examining the evidence at hand,” the PM cautioned rivals early in March.
“Let me advise you once again, the time to interchangeably engage in both legal and illegal acts has expired. There is only a legal and democratic means,” Meles once again cautioned Medrek members he said his party regards as ‘forces of destruction.’
“I suspect maybe there is a plan to start a fire and try to distance themselves from it later. Well, let me tell the ones that start it, they will endure the consequences,” Meles blasted on Tuesday.
Meles also affirmed to other opposition groups, CUD and EDP, that his government will make sure they are encouraged to maintain the peaceful means they have selected: “We don’t want you to slip from your ways.”
Moderates losing faith
But for the two parties, the reassurance from the PM seems to have come late.
“Despite our fair opposition we are enduring violence and abuse. To account it with a simple example in the constituency I am running in there is a fabricated hate speech against me on my religion though it is known I’m an Orthodox faithful,” Lidetu, parliamentary of the moderate EDP said, crying foul play like Medrek, although he did not directly blame EPRDF.
In an interview with Capital, Lidetu has said candidates his party are fielding were receiving threats including death threats over the phone.
“This is a shameful and outdated act,” Meles said, referring to the alleged hate speech and promised swift action: “Give us any evidence that EPRDF members are doing it and I assure you we will fire the members that are a disgrace to the party.
“Help us with evidence, it does not even have to convince us beyond reasonable doubt, but only reveals the act with certainty.”
MP Lidetu, however, was not satisfied with the PM’s remarks. He said he has already reported the act and exhausted the mechanisms established by the code by going to the parties’ joint council in his constituency. But no action has been taken.
“We did not sign the code so that it can be effective here in the capital, where foreign embassies and heads of the state reside, we signed it so that it governs the election throughout the nation, but that is not happening,” CUD, the other moderate group, candidate Legesse complained about an EPRDF he accused of establishing a chain of electoral abuse.
The ruling EPRDF, however, insisted it is operating first to realise democratic, free and fair elections, even ahead of winning a majority.
The May poll is expected to see 30 million cast their votes.
Video: Meles Zenawi Perofmance Report to Ethiopian parliament