Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed picked up his Nobel Peace Prize in Stockholm earlier this month, then returned home to Ethiopia to face challenges beyond sustaining peace with Eritrea. In November, Abiy proposed merging the four-party Ethiopian People’s Revolution Democratic Front (EPRDF) into one party, bringing an end to the ruling group in Ethiopia since the communist junta was overthrown in 1991.
The EPRDF came to power as the Cold War ended. Instead of abandoning their Marxist-Leninist roots, the group’s leaders tried to fuse revolutionary principles and class politics with capitalism and liberal democracy. The EPRDF’s successor party — the Prosperity Party — is a radical departure from the past, in terms of ideology and membership base. Here’s what you need to know.
Ethiopia’s party coalition was stabilizing, until it wasn’t
The four parties that made up the EPRDF were the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the Amhara Democratic Party, the Oromo Democratic Party and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement. The first three parties, respectively, represented the Tigray, Amhara and Oromo nations, which together are more than 70 percent of Ethiopia’s population. The Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement represented a regional state composed of numerous smaller national communities.
But EPRDF founders — leaders from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front — and other ethno-nationalist politicians strongly oppose the new PP. These dissenters want to maintain the old party structure and ideology and are unlikely to join the new Prosperity Party.
Parties that had never been allowed to join the EPRDF — the ruling parties in the Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz, Harari, Somalia and Gambella regions — have decided to dissolve and merge with the Prosperity Party. The EPRDF leadership previously argued that these largely pastoral regions lacked the agrarian class structure that revolutionary democracy presupposed. For almost three decades these groups were relegated to the status of partner parties; they were part of the federal government but couldn’t vote in EPRDF committees, where the group reached all of Ethiopia’s major political decisions.
The EPRDF’s role has come to an end
The separation — if it takes place peacefully and legitimately — could prove a source of stability in Ethiopia. The ideological ambiguity of the EPRDF has been a destabilizing factor and breaking it up may pave the way for establishing internally coherent parties and coalitions, which could mean greater stability in Ethiopia more generally.
EPRDF’s fragmentation began when its strongman, Meles Zenawi, passed away in 2012. Since then the four parties that make up EPRDF haven’t been able to agree how to share power. The power struggle enabled protests to escalate in 2016 and culminated in Abiy Ahmed becoming prime minister in 2018.
The fragmentation of the EPRDF was exacerbated under Abiy Ahmed’s leadership, leading to, among other things, the political assassination of Ethiopia’s military chief and the president of the Amhara Regional State on June 22. The power struggle also crystallized irreconcilable ideological positions within the leadership.
Abiy’s reforms break from EPRDF’s foundations
Abiy Ahmed came to power with a vision to transform the EPRDF as well as Ethiopia at large. His first target was the developmental state economic model, which had guided policy in Ethiopia since 2000. Under this model, the government plays an active role in the economy and invests in infrastructure, human capital and energy to fast-track a structural transformation of the economy from largely agrarian to increasingly industrial.
Abiy undermined this development model by drawing attention to financial mismanagement in Ethiopia’s state-owned enterprises, notably the military industrial complex METEC. He then declared that Ethiopia’s model for development would be “capitalism.”
The most controversial reform, however, was Abiy’s move away from the EPRDF’s nationalist narrative. The EPRDF had long depicted Ethiopia’s ethnic groups as victims of forced assimilationist policy — under a nation-building project that began in the 19th century and ended in 1995 with the introduction of the Ethiopia’s federal constitution, which granted the “nations, nationalities and peoples” the right to self-determination. Abiy formulated an alternative history that de-emphasized ethnic oppression and instead focused on ethnic harmony and national unity.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front leads the resistance against Abiy’s revolution
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front wants to continue the centrally directed economic model and has made saving the federal constitutional arrangement its main rallying point. In August, it convened a conference for pro-federalism forces that resembled a first step toward making a “federalist coalition” as an alternative to Abiy’s new Prosperity Party.
A peaceful divorce of EPRDF member parties could be derailed by the internal fragmentation with the factions. The leadership in Abiy’s own Oromo Democratic Party, for example, is split between those that embrace Abiy’s nationalist narrative and those that want to stick to the old ethno-nationalist discourse.
Abiy’s critics claim that the dismantling of the EPRDF and establishment of the Prosperity Party did not follow appropriate party procedures, saying that one individual imposed this change. Notably, the leader of the political process that brought Abiy Ahmed to power in 2018, former president of the Oromia Regional State Lemma Megersa, has made public his opposition to the Prosperity Party.
What does this mean for Ethiopia going forward?
If Ethiopians feel that their leaders are imposing this merger, the Prosperity Party’s coherence probably rests on shaky ground. This could make it difficult for Abiy and his new party to uphold law and order and navigate through the political reform process.
Efforts to turn the restructuring process into an opportunity to score tactical victories against various groups raises risks for instability as well. The different EPRDF factions want others to come out of the party transformation as bruised as possible.
Over the past weeks, these groups have been exchanging provocative accusations. Events throughout 2019, including the June 22 killings and the conflict between Abiy Ahmed and Jawar Mohamed’s supporters, illustrate how tit-for-tat dynamics can escalate into violence. The fate of the May 2020 parliamentary elections and general stability in Ethiopia will depend on how this process unfolds over the next few months.
Goitom Gebreluel is a political analyst based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Follow him on Twitter @goitom_gebrelue.