John Coyne asked me to write about the rash of killings in the run-up to Ethiopia’s  national elections on May 23.  Where to begin?

Ethiopia has had little experience with elections.  Several powerless parliaments were chosen over the decades, with few voters and minimal consequences. When the Derg fell and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was consolidating its power, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) realized that the invitation they got to participate in government and an election was intended to co-opt them, not to share power with them.  The Oromos — the biggest ethnic group in Ethiopia — turned it down and and withdrew to the political margin where they have usually been.  The government-created Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) remained their sole voice, such as it is, in the EPRDF.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi remains the only leader the EPRDF, the ruling party, has had since before they took over in 1991.  The Tigre People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) created and still controls the EPRDF.  Although there are non-Tigreans in the power structure, even in senior positions, the TPLF dominates the party and Meles controls the TPLF.

How to square this with elections?  The answer is simple: you can’t.  By definition, elections are intended to distribute power according to ballot results.  In Ethiopia — not alone in this — being voted out is not an acceptable election result.  It will not be allowed to happen.

In 2005, Ethiopia was recovering from war and drought.  It had successfully broken its promise and dodged the postwar border decision from The Hague. All four guarantors of the agreement  (the UN, US, EU and AU) looked the other way. There had been several good harvests, foreign aid was pouring in and coffee prices were recovering.

A few small parties emerged to contest the election. Several of them combined to present a meaningful challenge.  Badly misreading the public mood, the overconfident EPRDF allowed unprecedented public debate on the all-important broadcast media. The public was riveted by the broadcasts and voter registration surged.  An opposition rally in Addis Ababa just before election day drew a crowd some estimated at close to a million!  Even if inflated, it was a huge and peaceful assembly. The government’s counter-rally gathered a respectable but smaller crowd.

On election day so many voters lined up that some polling stations were forced to stay open well past midnight.  Some estimated that an unheard of 90% of registered voters actually turned out.  Why did they show up in such numbers? What where they thinking?   In a country without a democratic tradition, with low rates of education and literacy, why were so many people willing to stand in line for hours to vote…a concept many probably didn’t fully understand?  And what happened to those emotions?

Many voted against the government.  The EPRDF lost the entire City Council in Addis Ababa and was badly beaten in parliamentary races in many urban areas, where the results became known quickly.  In a panic, the government barred election observers (including the Carter Center) as the majority of the ballots — Ethiopia is 80%+ rural — were counted.  The opposition, without evidence, claimed it had won.  The government, also without evidence, claimed it had won.  To no one’s surprise, the government won big.

The streets of Addis were soon filled with uniforms and armored vehicles. I saw them myself, having arrived in Addis a few days after the election, and was there when violence broke out.  It followed a familiar pattern, one that I had also seen in the 1960s when student protesters marched against Emperor Haile Selassie.  Angry students gathered, shouting abusive language and refusing to disperse when ordered to do so.  Shots were fired, far more shots than in the 1960s and with many more casualties.  There were several public clashes and altogether nearly 200 were killed.

When the dust settled, tens of thousands had been rounded up and sent to detention camps. Most were soon released.  Many opposition leaders were arrested, charged with treason and released 18 months later in a deal intended to blunt their political careers.  The parties they had created were infiltrated, splintered and effectively neutered. One, Birtukan Mideksa, the most popular opposition figure in the country, was rearrested.  She remains in jail.

The EPRDF is not going to let history repeat itself.  Under intense pressure, the surviving opposition have tried to mount election  campaigns, but they are small, weak, underfunded and harassed by government supporters.  A few have been killed, including both candidates and supporters. The government claims that one of its people has been killed.  Much of the violence is in Oromia, but also in Tigre, where an embarrassing home-province challenge to the TPLF emerged.

The number of victims is small but the message is unmistakable.  Running against this government is dangerous.  There are periodic reminders of just how dangerous. With the outcome never in doubt, the courage of the opposition is impressive. The strength of the government’s response reveals its anxiety.

Questions come to mind.  What happened to 2005’s enthusiasm?  Forgotten?  Stored away for another time?  No one saw trouble coming in 2005.  Could something similar happen in 2010…after the elections, if not before?  The students again?  Is the government show of force aimed at them in particular, reminding them of the cost of protest?  The EPRDF’s own leadership — Meles himself — left the campus to fight the Derg…