Just days before Ethiopia goes to the polls, the Jan Meda sports field in Addis Ababa is empty of its usual hordes of joggers and footballers. Instead it is reserved for a rally by the main opposition party, Medrek. But only a couple of hundred people turn up, their orange T-shirts bearing the slogan “I vote for clean hand” almost lost in the field’s wide expanses.
Medrek’s poor showing contrasts with the campaign of the ruling party, theEthiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which uses its sway over farmers and civil servants to mobilise thousands of placard-wielding supporters all over the country.
Sunday’s election result will probably be the most predictable of any African vote this year. The EPRDF, which has won all four elections since 1995, has used a combination of carrot and stick – state-driven economic progress and pervasive societal control – to maintain support and keep its challengers in check.
The election is the first since the death in 2012 of Meles Zenawi, the architect of modern Ethiopia who ruled for 21 years, and it presents an opportunity for his low-profile successor as prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, to emerge from Zenawi’s long shadow in Africa’s second most populous country.
Desalegn told al-Jazeera this week: “This is a fledgling democracy and we say that this is a house in the making, and democracy cannot be built within a few years of time. But the thing is, we believe we are on the right track.”
Dissenting voices in Ethiopia are seemingly muted even when compared to countries such as Sudan, where the recent election suffered a low turnout after activists campaigned for a mass boycott. While critics slam the opposition’s poor organisation and inability to detail alternative policies, Medrek officials at last week’s meeting blamed the turnout on intimidation. “There is fear,” says Alemu Gobebo, who sports a bright yellow party cap.
Alemu should know. His daughter, Reeyot, a journalist, is in prison for terrorism offences. The committee to protect journalists says that, as with other jailed writers, her crime was to criticise an authoritarian government. Opposition leaders have also been victims of politicised convictions, according to Amnesty International.
Last month an activist named Getahun Abraham doused his body in petrol and set himself alight; but unlike Mohamed Bouazizi, the unemployed Tunisian whose self-immolation in December 2010 helped trigger the Arab spring, the suicide has not sparked protests in Ethiopia.
The government claims that a record 36.8 million people have registered to vote – 95% of those eligible, and a 15.3% rise on the 2010 elections. On that occasion the opposition won one seat of 547 in the national legislature and captured just 8% of the popular vote. While a less crushing defeat is expected this time, analysts are not predicting significant gains for fragmented, uninspired opponents that have wilted under the EPRDF’s glare.
Hallelujah Lulie, an Ethiopian researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, said: “There is no one simple reason ... However, the narrow political sphere, the weakened opposition and the aggressive campaign for the government by the state could be the major factors.”
Although millions of Ethiopians appreciate the EPRDF’s development achievements, including two decades of relative peace in a troubled region, there is still plenty of angst over rising living costs, corruption, poor public services and restrictions on human rights.
Yohannes Asebe, a 33-year-old electrician from Addis Ababa, says: “We are not being ruled properly. But because we don’t have any option most probably people will elect the ruling party.”
The formerly rebel EPRDF, a coalition of four regional parties, came to power in 1991 by unseating a military regime. It has only faced one significant electoral challenge, in 2005, when an opposition coalition made gains in urban areas. However, disputed results led to violence and subsequently the widepread imprisonment of Coalition for Unity and Democracy members.
Spurred into action, the EPRDF enacted laws to restrict dissent and began to solicit investment for projects such as roads, universities, low-cost apartments, hydropower dams and sugar factories. The party also reached out from its rural base to create the environment for the ongoing urban construction boom and launched a scheme to reduce soaring unemployment by funding small businesses.
Yeshi Assefa, like tens of thousands of Ethiopians every year, migrated abroad to find better-paid work. Instead, the 31-year-old was deported from Saudi Arabia in 2013 and ended up back in Addis Ababa relying on her truck driver husband.
Her luck turned with help from the government. Yeshi and 14 others now run a chicken farm after receiving training, seed capital and rent-free premises.
“Because the EPRDF government has done something for me I will vote for it,” she said in her bare office equipped with a calculator, stapler and bottle of Tippex.
Co-owner Emebet Belete added that the ruling party is “better than all the others,” referring to Ethiopia’s outgunned opposition.
Infrastructure and social services spending has helped the country’s economic growth average 10% over the past decade, according to the UN Development Programme. But while Ethiopia’s poverty rate fell from 39% to 26% between 2005 and 2013, a quarter of the country’s 100 million people still live below the UN poverty threshold of $1.25 (£0.80) a day.
Bouts of popular dissent are swiftly crushed. Around 90 miles west of Addis Ababa in Ambo, off a bustling high street, torched cars are stacked outside a police station compound. They remain there after civil unrest a year ago, when ethnic Oromo students objected to what they saw as a plan to extend Addis Ababa into Oromia state.
Security forces quashed the demonstrations, killing protesters. Naty, a 22-year-old student who withheld his surname, said violence occurred because authorities wouldn’t tolerate a peaceful protest. “People are very angry but they cannot express it – inside they are burning. They don’t allow people to exercise their democratic rights.”
At the core of the EPRDF’s rural strategy is building courts, police posts, banks, clinics and schools in rural areas and linking communities with roads, power lines and mobile phone networks. Ensuring farmers have a choice at elections ranks well below instructing them to send their kids to school, build hygienic toilets, or use fertilizers and better planting techniques.
Around 30 miles north of Addis Ababa in Oromia, Tadesse Tsegaye, 35, lives with his wife and three children among rolling fields in a compound ringed by a rock wall. A spring is a short walk away and he shares some land to grow wheat and barley. Ownership of eight cattle and a shiny steel roof on their wood hut indicates relative prosperity.
Clothes, soap and sugar are expensive and he has not been able to buy fertilizer as urged by officials, because of high prices. Still, Tadesse joined the EPRDF three years ago at an agricultural training course. “I didn’t ask to become a member; they just said that I was,” he recalled inside his hut.
On Sunday he will support a government that has provided services and infrastructure. “I will vote for the EPRDF as I know nothing about the other parties and I want the country to be peaceful.”