The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is expected to name a new prime minister early next week. The 180-member EPRDF Council has been meeting since March 20. Five days into the meeting, the party’s leaders continue to dance around the Big elephant in the room, according to inside sources. No discussion has apparently taken place on who should lead the party and the country out of the current chaos. No votes have been taken. The dominant Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) keeps coming up with one diversionary agenda after another. And the focus has been on sowing discord, undermining, and destroying key reformist leaders of the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO).
Key issues discussed this week per sources: Whether to expel the MPs who voted against or did not cast vote for the disputed emergency decree; democratic centralism and the loyalty of OPDO to EPRDF’s revolutionary democracy program; OPDO’s open campaign for the PM position, and how to deal with the ongoing crisis in the country.
So who are the candidates? What are their chances? Here is a slightly edited refresher, originally published on March 4.
The succession battle in Ethiopia is entering its last phase. There are three front-runners: One is Demeke Mekonnen, the current deputy PM and chairman of the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM). The second candidate is Shiferaw Shigute, who earlier last month replaced Hailemariam as chairman of Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM). The two will face off against Dr. Abiy Ahmed, the chairman of OPDO.
(ANDM, OPDO, SEPDM and TPLF together makeup the EPRDF coalition, in power since 1991.)
The jostling for control and subtle campaigns are unusual and visible but don’t expect a fair and transparent election. In theory, the next leader will be chosen by the 180-member EPRDF Council, made up of 45 members each from the four coalition partners. In reality, the candidate that TPLF’s 45 members vote for will eventually be coronated. TPLF is widely expected to sit out the contest. However, earlier this month, citing unnamed sources, a local newspaper reported all the four chairmen of EPRDF parties are in the running for the office of the prime minister. This adds Debretsion Gebremichael to the mix. The scandal-tainted TPLF chief and former deputy PM is one of the hardliners fighting to restore the party’s one-time unquestioned hegemony.
Of the four EPRDF member parties’ bosses, Debretsion has the least chance of becoming prime minister. In fact, his elevation would not only be blatantly tone-deaf but it would pose an existential threat to the country’s future that is no less dire than an outright military coup.
Demeke is loathed even within his own party and among the Amhara people. He was widely expected to lose his chairmanship when the party’s central committee met last month. But he somehow survived and promises of the premiership by the TPLF may have a lot to do with it. He is part of the executive leadership that was blamed for incompetence and dereliction of duty. Along with Hailemariam, he took responsibility for the current crisis facing the country. He has been a cabinet minister since 2008. Simply put: As the party promises deep reform, Demeke is not a change agent or a reformist by any stretch of the imagination.
Shiferaw is the head of the EPRDF Secretariat. Under his watch, the ruling party nearly splintered, corruption, brinkmanship and TPLF’s factionalism run rampant and the former is now on the verge of disbanding. Hailemariam, whose six-year tenure was rocked by endless crises, is Shiferaw’s comrade and until last month SEPDM’s chair. If Shiferaw gets the top post, as it is now rumored, it would very simply be because of his loyalty to the TPLF brass and robber barons fighting to maintain the status quo. But elevating another nominal figure, with no real constituency, would make little logical or strategic sense. He lacks the charisma, oratory and gravitas to inspire confidence, gain popular legitimacy and unify the party, much less kick-starting a national reconciliation. Unlike Hailemariam, Shiferaw doesn’t even enjoy the support of his own people—the Sidama, the largest of the close to 60 ethnic groups in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples region. He has long been dogged by charges of corruption.
Dr. Abiy Ahmed
In the eyes of many Ethiopia watchers and the majority Oromo people, Abiy Ahmed is the clear choice to lead the country out of the current abyss. Oromia has been the epicenter of the protest movement. Over the past year, Abiy and his colleagues in the OPDO, particularly the regional president Lemma Megersa —who remains the overwhelming national favorite despite bowing out of the race—have embraced most of the protesters’ demands, thereby positioning the party as a champion of political and economic reforms.
Abiy has been accused of character flaws but he could take some of the lessons from Oromia to the federal apparatus. His elevation would also satisfy Oromo’s long quest for a political power commensurate with their size and contributions. But Abiy, who two weeks ago emerged as a clear frontrunner, has apparently drawn the ire of TPLF bosses and their military-intelligence complex. His chances now appear in jeopardy.
A dark horse TPLF candidate?
There are other dangers lurking ahead. First, if the recent dramatic “nay” vote in parliament, abstention and the strategic absence of nearly 100 MPs for the parliamentary session is any indication, the EPRDF-controlled parliament is due for yet another showdown—over who should be coronated as the country’s next leader and whether that leader would be subordinate to the country’s powerful military chief of staff and security head, both hardline Tigrayans.
Even if a TPLF candidate sails through parliament via yet another episode of vote rigging, such a candidate is likely to receive a frosty reception and will remain an ineffective lame duck until the next elections in 2020. A scenario where TPLF elbows through an unpopular dark horse, for example, an OPDO old-guard or an ambitious technocrat with no legitimacy on the streets, does not portend well for EPRDF and more importantly for Ethiopia. In fact, that may well become the last straw which breaks the camel’s back and could actually end with EPRDF’s dissolution.
Already, TPLF honchos and their cronies — facing an inevitable decline and a creeping realization of their waning influence — are said to be considering a scenario where the federation will be dissolved and key leaders of “Lemma’s OPDO,” including Abiy, which according to insiders are described by TPLF hardliners as “the party of anarchy,” will be purged or jailed. In fact, increasing assertiveness by OPDO has moved so-called TPLF moderates into the fold of hardline elements. TPLF, without any exception and internal dissent, is fully resolved to liquidate the challenge from both the reformist wing of OPDO and the youth protesters that have demanded reform since 2014. That prospect, scary to even contemplate, would end with a bloody civil war. The stakes have never been higher.