Democratic elections, ethnic rivalries unhinge Ethiopia's fragile peace


ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Ethiopia, freshly emerged from Marxist dictatorship and civil war, is on the brink of renewed conflict following a flawed election.

The voting June 21 for powerful regional assemblies was to have marked a major step in a planned transition to democracy by 1994.

But it left the country bitterly divided, with President Meles Zenawi warning of warfare between his interim government and the second-largest political faction, which has its own army.

The tension not only jeopardizes a fragile recovery from warfare and from a disastrous attempt at socialism, it calls into question what many considered a promising experiment in handling ethnic rivalries. Such rivalries have long been an explosive problem in Africa, one that is increasingly coming to the fore as the continent opens up to democracy.

Ethiopia for centuries has endured autocratic, sometimes brutal rule by a powerful center, first by feudal emperors and then by leftist military officers. Many outlying peoples complained of oppression and several took up arms, precipitating 30 years of war that ended last year when Mr. Meles' northern-based guerrilla front overthrew longtime dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

The victorious rebels invited other factions to join an interim government, which decided to reduce central power and interethnic frictions by dividing Ethiopia into 14 regions that roughly conform to the country's patchwork of nationalities.

Last weekend's voting, the first multiparty contests in Ethiopia's history, was the first popular test of the policy. But some of the 200 international observers said the elections were marred by widespread abuses.

In a preliminary report, the observers said Mr. Meles' group and affiliated organizations were often the only choice on ballots.

However, the report noted that Ethiopians enjoy greater freedom of political expression than ever before -- a point made by a senior Western diplomat who said, "Compared to what they had in the Mengistu era, this was an advance."

The election was boycotted by opposition parties including the Oromo Liberation Front, which said that its supporters suffered arrests and intimidation and that Mr. Meles' group unfairly dominated local election committees -- contentions at least partly backed by the observers.

Days before the election, the liberation front withdrew its army of up to 20,000 troops from encampments where it was to remain until the voting ended. And Tuesday it withdrew from the government, where it had the second-largest representation.

Lying behind the moves is a long history of ethnic rivalry, domination and resentment.

The front claims to be the main representative of the Oromos, who live in central Ethiopia and are the country's largest ethnic group, with up to 40 percent of the population. The Oromos were conquered in the 19th century by feudal emperors from the northern highlands and have since remained in thrall to Addis Ababa.

Mr. Meles' group, the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front, draws its strength from Tigre province, a northern highland area that served as the group's base during its 16 years of insurgency.

The two sides fought a series of pitched battles between November and April as the revolutionary front, using both soldiers and administrators, sought to solidify its control throughout the country.

Negotiated agreements sent the liberation front into the camps, with similar restrictions placed on troops of the revolutionary front.

Mr. Meles said last week that his rivals, by decamping and then mining roads, were "in effect declaring war on the transitional government."

He said the door was open to further negotiations. But Western diplomats braced for violence, with one saying that Mr. Meles was "95 percent" decided to go to war.

Although the revolutionary front is expected to handily win any major battles -- its army counts 100,000 or more troops, at least five times the liberation front's strength -- analysts did not discount the possibility of protracted guerrilla warfare.

Such fighting could derail a program of economic and political liberalization under which Ethiopia's moribund economy is to receive a $657 million infusion of mainly Western funds over 30 months.

Donors, who long isolated Mr. Mengistu's Stalinist regime, have welcomed Mr. Meles' apparent pragmatism. But they have made clear that continued funding for what is one of the world's poorest countries would depend upon democracy as well as upon economic reform.

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