On Sunday, the ruling party won 499 of 536 seats now decided, with 11 seats still to come.  That’s 93%…a landslide by anyone’s  reckoning.

The common expectation around the table at a meeting of ‘knowledgeable observers’ last Friday was obviously mistaken; the existing 70-30 split was not maintained.

Did Meles’ really want this extreme result.  It’s hard to think otherwise.  He gave the instructions to mount an all-out effort to take as many seats as possible.  But at all costs, I can hear him saying, make sure there is no bloodshed to feed Twitter and YouTube.  Meles saw what happened in Iran last summer.

Given the results, did Meles really win the election?  He certainly won almost every seat but there was more at stake for him than that. He wants this election to be seen by the world as evidence of his legitimacy and political integrity.  He wants to be seen as a leader who was chosen by appreciative voters in recognition of his impressive economic and social achievements.

Yet this lopsided outcome is so transparently a manufactured product with a suspect relationship to public opinion that the result may ultimately not be what he wants.  The EU’s chief observer commented favorably at first, responding to the absence of violence and mechanically  repeating the government’s claims of a high turnout (an endlessly repeated claim in the absence of little first hand information, though it is challenged by many anecdotal reports of nearly empty polling stations).  A day later, he now says that the election ‘falls short’ of international standards.  In a classic European acceptance of a political fait accompli. he also said that the process wasn’t bad enough to overturn the results. What he didn’t say but clearly meant was, “Can I go home now?”

The US  Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Johnnie Carson told a House panel today that “the elections there were not up to international standards”.  There were no US observers this time. The Carter Center had asked in December to send an advance team to observe the crucial voter registration and campaign period as well as the voting itself. The Ethiopian government stalled until there was time only for a last minute arrival and the kind of limited effort that the EU was willing to agree to.  The Carter Center declined, perhaps remembering its shabby performance during the 2005 election, led by the former president himself.

How will the Ethiopian public see things?  The level of political sophistication in Ethiopia after living through centuries of government maneuvering is as high as anywhere in the world.  They don’t have the least doubt that the deep divisions in their society could not possibly have led to this outcome.  As realists long familiar with how power operates, they certainly expected the government to win.  But a victory of such proportions may not go down as easily as 70-30 did.  It implies such great enthusiasm for a little admired leader that they might choke on it.  Whether they do, and whether it might find tangible expression, is impossible to know.

And what of the defeated…no, the humiliated…opposition?  An election is supposed to be a mature, peaceful way to express dissent. When that expression is insulted in this way, with opposition leaders ‘defeated’ and thrown out of Parliament, how are they to react?  So far they have honorably rejected calls for violence but have stated the intent to challenge the results through proper channels. Since these channels are under government control not much satisfaction is likely beyond a chance to air their grievances.  That is something, at least.

Will it end here?  Or might the ill will generated by such an egregious election consolidate the fragmented opposition?  It is widely agreed that Ethiopia missed a historic opportunity in 2005, when a seriously contested election produced a real challenge to the ruling party.  Neither side was capable of letting it play out fairly.  The government locked out the poll watchers and produced the result it wanted.  The opposition claimed it had won.  The result of an honest count that year will be forever unknown, but the lesson the government learned to make sure that it wouldn’t be close next time.  And that’s what happened.

In practical terms, as I said a few days ago, nothing has changed.  The government was in complete control before and is still in complete control.  The difference is the aftertaste of a tainted election.