The election results in Ethiopia are now official.  The ruling party and its few small affiliate parties won 545 out of 547 seats, 99.6%.

In regional elections, the ruling party won 1903 out of 1904 seats, 99.95%.  Some accounts say there were 1900 regional contests, others say 1908, but all agree that the ruling party won all but one seat.

The outcome is such a mockery of the democratic process that after a statement from the EU observers and the US government that ‘the playing field wasn’t level’ and that the elections ‘weren’t up to international standards’, everyone has fallen silent, not knowing what else to say.

A delegation of observers from other African countries organized by the African Union declared the election free and fair. That may say something about what they are used to seeing.

There have been fewer complaints about dishonest counting compared with the 2005 election.  This is generally attributed to the fact that Meles’s agents had gained such complete control of the electorate through manipulation of the distribution of  seeds, fertilizer, land access, etc., and had intimidated the opposition candidates so thoroughly during the campaign  (beatings, breaking up rallies, denying permits, tearing down posters) that there was no need to manipulate the count.

Near total silence has descended on the Ethiopian political scene.  The defeated parties are going through the motions of a  formal appeal process and have been rejected at every level.  Their complaints are mere formalities, as everyone knows.

Meles has emerged for the first time as a classic African strong man.  Until this campaign, after 19 years in office, he had not used his image on posters.  This year his face is everywhere — on t-shirts, watch chains, billboards and posters.  His is now openly one-man rule.  Behind the scenes that may have already been true, but Meles has now intentionally made himself the public face of Ethiopia.

Meles’ political record has been nearly error-free.  His worst mistake was in 2005, when he allowed too much political space to the opposition and was shocked by the results.  When the count started coming in, he quickly turned as ruthless as he needed to be to derail  the opposition.  He threw observers out of the rooms where ballots were being counted.  His police broke up protests, killing nearly 200 people.  He arrested the leaders of the opposition parties and kept them in jail for 18 months, finding them guilty of ‘treason’ — a capital offense — before cutting a deal to let them go.

Meles had made his point.  A few fled the country.  One, the extremely popular Birtukan Mideksa, enraged Meles by not supporting his explanation of the deal that freed them.  He re-arresterd her, reinstated her conviction and she remains in jail today.

Meles is too smart to be a wantonly brutal man.  He knows that senseless brutality makes unnecessary enemies, damages Ethiopia’s reputation and most of all, makes him look bad.  Though he welcomed international observers for this election, he made sure that they were not in the country when the serious work of voter intimidation and manipulation took place.  The observers saw a voting day with little violence that led to little bad press.

Now what?  Meles says that his political goal is to renew his party, easing out the veterans and recruiting younger talent to ensure his party a victory in 2015, when, he has said, he will retire. Over time, his reason for personalizing his rule will probably become clear.  It is not accidental.  That would be unlike him.

Unexpected things are happening everywhere, and Ethiopia is in a lively neighborhood.  Relations with Eritrea are frigid and the border is heavily armed.  Djibouti has the power to blackmail Ethiopia because its port carries 95% of Ethiopia’s trade.  They have already demanded, and gotten, one payoff.  Ethiopian troops are still active in Somalia, though not permanently stationed there now. South Sudan will almost certainly vote for independence next January, and Khartoum will look for a way to resist the loss of the oil there.  Ethiopia’s long border with both of them will need careful management.

And that’s only the external picture.  Over 80 million poor Ethiopians are inside the borders. That is his biggest challenge.

Keep an eye on the Horn of Africa.