Addis Abeba, December 05/2018 – In the wake of the first ever face-to-face meeting between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and leaders of 81 opposition parties currently in Ethiopia, opposition party members of the now defunct Political Parties Negotiation Forum told Addis Standard that Prime Minister Abiy’s administration has circumvented the months long negotiations between the ruling party EPRDF and 15 opposition parties without giving proper notice for the “legitimate body overseeing the negotiations” since January 2017.
The negotiations between national opposition political parties, originally numbering 22 – a number that later on dwindled to 15 – and the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took place between January 2017 and June 2018. The negotiations were bumpy, and at times mired in controversies, but the parties have agreed on five critical issues, among them, amending the existing Revised Political Parties’ Registration Proclamation No. 573/2008 and Electoral Law of Ethiopia, Proclamation No. 532/2007. Regarding the electoral law, for example, the negotiating parties have reached an agreement to amend “the electoral system of the country from first-past-the-post electoral system to a mixed electoral system.”
However, the negotiation remained inactive since June 2018. Following the resignation in February 2018 of former PM Hailemariam Desalegn, the ruling EPRDF too has undergone through a change at a breakneck speed that left the party beyond recognition. It also paved ways for a new Prime Minister, PM Abiy Ahmed, to become chairman of the party. Other changes included the decision by EPRDF to allow into Ethiopia of dozens of previously exiled opposition parties including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Patriotic Ginbot 7 (PG7) and the Ogaden Leberation Front (ONLF), which were all branded as terrorist organizations under Ethiopia’s draconian Anti-terrorism proclamation, bringing in new actors within the opposition party block.
Under the reformist government led by PM Abiy, a fresh meeting between the PM and representatives of a total of 81 opposition parties was held on Tuesday December 27, during which PM Abiy suggested a three phase consultation, including upfront discussions with opposition party leaders before and after the 2020 general elections. He also suggested the talks to be facilitated by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). The consecutive meetings are aimed at garnering inputs through discussions, building a vibrant political and democratic space, prevailing a cohesive national and mutually understandable discourse and, most importantly, holding credible, free and fair elections.
However, this was not taken as a welcome news by some of the opposition party members who were part of the Political Parties Negotiation Forum.
“There is the existing negotiation forum that has a legitimate ground, and we have been waiting for the EPRDF, which bought time [to sort] its internal problems forcing us to reschedule successive talks,” Wasihun Tesfaye, Deputy Negotiator of the Negotiation Forum and executive committee member of the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) told Addis Standard. “They had to communicate with us officially with a prior notice on whether the forum is averted to a new colloquy or not; the negotiating parties are asking,” Wasihun said.
The Political Parties Negotiation Forum, which, in its last shape, had deficient representation with only 15 national political parties, has been interrupted since June 2018, after deliberating on the fifth agenda of national consensus.
“What will happen to the previous negotiations and the points we agreed to?” Mesafint Shiferaw, a.k.a Lij Mesfin of the All Ethiopians National Movement (AENM), one of the 15 parties in the Forum, asked during the meeting with PM Abiy. But PM Abiy said that if discussions were to take place, they should be led by an independent and credible institution and pointed out that he has neither been the chairperson of the EPRDF nor a Prime Minister of the country during the previous negotiations.
Nevertheless, not all opposition party leaders agree with Wasihun and Mesafint. Chairperson of the newly established party, Ethiopian National Movement (ENM), and formerly the leader of the Blue Party, Yilkal Getnet, says the previous Forum was not representative in its strategy and had submitted to the needs of the ruling EPRDF. “They kept the ball rolling without decisions that brought no answer for political parties that have not been in negotiations. What do we need the forum for?” Yilkal, who dropped out of the negotiations, exclaimed. “[Instead] the new move, which is yet to be checked, is a step in the right direction,” he told Addis Standard. “I hope it will be a genuine one.”
Berhanu Nega of PG7 too believes the fresh talks are of paramount importance. “This is judicious and carefully taken approach given this is the last chance for a political system over the hills,” he told local media.
Although not on the agenda of the talks between PM Abiy and opposition party leaders, representatives of a few parties, particularity those which were formed recently, have gone as far as asking the prime minister about constitutional amendment, indicative of high expectations of the fresh talks. Others meanwhile insisted the fresh talks should only be about elections and no other agendas.
The priority, in the meantime, should only be about discussing ways which can bring to the country democratic chances it had long lost, and ways of “holding free and fair elections so as to erase the credibility gap on the political discourse,” Abiy told the gathering. “There will be no issue left untouched, stretching to constitutional amendment,” he said.
However, he cautioned that constitutional amendment, if necessary, will only happen after first having a legitimately elected government with the mandate to govern, which, as of yet, neither the ruling EPRDF nor its weak competitors have. “We cannot just decide on pertinent constitutional queries and fondle around with this forum; citizens have the right to be consulted,” Abiy said. AS