Ethiopian voters will go to the polls on Sunday for an election that is expected to easily keep the ruling coalition, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), in power. It’s the first legislative election since Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn assumed office in September 2012 following the death of his predecessor, Meles Zenawi.
Ethiopia is considered to be one of the more stable countries in an otherwise tinderbox region, and in recent years has benefited by an economic boom. With a 10.5 percent growth of the country’s GDP in 2013 and an average growth rate of 10 percent over the last several years, Ethiopia has attracted foreign investors; the East African nation has been dubbed “the world’s new factory” by French financial daily Les Echos. Just last week, Chinese and Ethiopian officials agreed to develop a massive Special Economic Zone (SEZ) on the outskirts of the capital, comprised of a mile-long stretch of factories, offices, and dwellings to be built by 2020.
Many give credit for these successes to the EPRDF.
Yet “despite these attractive figures, the revenue that is generated from this growth is very unevenly distributed,” said Gérard Prunier, a historian who ran the French Center for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. “The Tigray people have access to much more of this revenue than others.”
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And a quarter of the nation’s 100 million people live under the UN’s poverty line of $1.25 per day.
The nation’s poor human rights record has also come under scrutiny in recent years. The government’s repression of the media created what Human Rights Watch (HRW) described as a “bleak landscape for free expression ahead of the May 2015 general elections.”
There are 47 political parties and almost 6,000 candidates for the 547-seat parliament on the ballot. “No more than two to three parties are real opposition parties. The others don’t run to win. Their role is to dilute the vote for the opposition,” Merera Gudina, an opposition figure who teaches political science at Addis Ababa University, told Al Jazeera.
The ruling party has also been accused of repressing its political rivals, arresting the members of other parties and stifling anti-government protests. “In [the capital] Addis Ababa, 50 of our members are still in prison or in police custody… The elections are fixed,” Yilkal Getnet, president of the opposition Blue Party, told French daily La Croix.
Prunier estimated the ruling party would win “between 95 and 99 percent” of the parliamentary seats.
The party, Prunier told VICE News, is akin to a “big brother,” who exerts control “over the whole family.”
EPRDF is made up of four political parties — the main one being the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) — and the EPRDF coalition has been in power since 1991, when the brutal government of Mengistu Haile Mariam was overthrown.
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Both of the prime ministers who have governed the country since Ethiopia’s Constituent Assembly election of 1994 — the first multi-party elections since the end of Mariam’s regime — have been members of the FLPT. And in 2010 EPRDF won 546 out of the 547 available parliamentary seats.
The 2010 elections were overshadowed by claims of electoral fraud. European Union election observers investigating complaints of irregularities found the election campaign “unbalanced” and denounced “the narrowing of the political space.”
Five years earlier, during elections won again by the same coalition, 200 people died in violent clashes between opposition protesters and the police.
According to La Croix, the African Union has announced it will deploy some 59 observers to oversee the elections on Sunday. No Western observers are expected to be on the scene. According to the International Business Times, the European Union is sitting out the election because Ethiopia had ignored its recommendations after the last elections.
Eritrea, Somalia, and South Sudan have sent 700,000 refugees over the border into Ethiopia, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). According to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), 400,000 people sought refuge in Ethiopia in 2013.
While Ethiopia is important to the US, UK, and European Union in terms of security in the region, recently the country has been adjusting to the emerging threat of terrorism. In April, the Islamic State (IS) released footage showing the execution of 30 Ethiopian Christians in Libya. The video spurred protests in the capital, which eventually spiraled into violence, and despite a heavy police presence, anti-government slogans were reportedly heard at the rally.
In late 2014, French and US diplomats in Ethiopia confirmed reports of threats by Somalian Islamist group al Shabaab.
The almost-certain outcome of the forthcoming legislative election will be announced on June 22, 2015. But Prunier doesn’t foresee any street protests — at least, not until the fall. “Ethiopian politics are heavily influenced by the rain,” he explained, referring to the rainy season, which affects the country’s network of roads so severely that protesting is practically impossible. The rainy season, explained the historian, goes from June to September or November. “If there are protests, they could happen then.”
Follow Matthieu Jublin on Twitter : @matthieujublin