Two tense dramas are unfolding in the Horn these days.  One is in Somalia, where insurgents may be on the verge of ousting the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).  The other, moving more slowly but with bigger consequences, involves Ethiopia’s recent election experience.  With sweeping and probably reckless oversimplification, I will talk about elections in Ethiopia, using Iran ‘as a foil’, as our president might say.

A few days ago, Iran’s supreme leader reaffirmed his claim of a landslide victory for the government’s candidate, warning protesters against further demonstrations.  Even a narrow victory was unacceptable.  An outright loss was unthinkable.  After some chaotic days, a few score — no one knows how many — are dead.  For now, the violence seems to have abated.

Iran’s election and Ethiopia’s in 2005 have enough parallels to be worth examining.

The actual balloting seems to have been fair in both countries.  Polling places remained open late to accommodate big turnouts.  Public enthusiasm was high.  Both sides in both elections were confident of victory (a third candidate in Iran had little chance to win but may have been strong enough to affect a close race).

Both governments claimed victory before they could have counted the millions of paper ballots in these big countries with widely dispersed populations (70+ million in Iran, 80+ million in Ethiopia.  Both oppositions also claimed victory, also without evidence.  In Iran, last minute polls favored the opposition, though it seems unlikely that rural and small town voters — a big group — could have been fairly polled.  In Ethiopia, opposition confidence turned into certainty when the first returns showed them sweeping Addis Ababa and other urban areas.

An overconfident Ethiopian government had agreed to let the counting be observed, but those early defeats unnerved them. They shouldn’t have been surprised because they knew how unpopular they were in the cities and towns. Since Ethiopia is eighty percent rural and the opposition had not been able to campaign effectively in the countryside, the government overreacted when it locked out the observers and announced a suspiciously big government victory. The results were challenged but upheld, as expected. Opposition seats in Parliament increased but still fell conveniently short of the minimum needed to exert any influence. Protests were forcefully suppressed by police and militia.

Iran, too, blundered by claiming an improbable margin of victory. Huge crowds defied the Ayatollah’s ban on demonstrations, and clashes with the militia and police erupted.

A cynical truism comes to mind in both elections:  it doesn’t matter who gets the votes, it matters who counts the votes.

Events followed a different path in each country  but the outcomes will probably be the same: the regimes will get a black eye but will remain in full control.  Long term consequences are another matter.  Both populations have been politicized and mistrust is stronger than before.  In Ethiopia, this may find an outlet in 2010, when the next election is scheduled.  In Iran, relative quiet may last longer but also be temporary.  Ahmadinejad could be removed in a few months to appease the protesters. This is a guess, of course.  No concessions were made in Ethiopia in 2005.

About 200 died in Addis Ababa in 2005, and tens of thousands were sent to detention camps.  Most were soon released but the memory lingers. The government still defends and justifies its every act.

Ethiopian opposition leaders were jailed for 18 months in late 2005.  In Iran there have been a handful of political arrests, but a decisive historical difference discourages the Ethiopian approach. All the candidates were established supporters of the Islamic Republic.  An Islamic religious establishment has existed for centuries.  Arrests of senior figures would further inflame existing rivalries that have little to do with the election.  The media say that this is happening anyway.

The Ethiopian opposition in 2005, on the other hand, was a newly-formed coalition of parties with short histories.   Most, as well as the coalition itself, were formed specifically for this election. What they had in common was their opposition to the government. There was no time to debate a platform, which would probably have exposed serious differences.  The inevitable result was a litany of good intentions and an unclear proposed sharing of authority. Most of its members had little political experience — not surprising,  since Ethiopia’s modern political culture is still in its infancy. There were few experienced candidates to choose from.