Key leaders absent from Ethiopian elections
By Elizabeth Blunt, BBC News, Addis Ababa / March 3, 2008
Ethiopians will soon be getting their first chance to vote since the general election in 2005, which ended with violent protests and the jailing of most of the leaders of the opposition.
The opposition CUD coalition won far more seats than any opposition party had ever won before, but they were convinced that the true result should have been even more in their favour.
The CUD leaders were eventually pardoned and released from jail last year, and the government announced that their rights were being fully restored and they were free to vote and stand for office.
But their seats were declared vacant while they were in prison.
There will be by-elections for their old seats in April, and also elections for Addis Ababa city council, which the opposition won, but which has had an appointed caretaker administration since 2005.
But it now appears that none of the imprisoned party leadership will be standing for election again, or trying to get their old seats back.
The leader of the CUD parliamentary party, Temesgen Zewde, said they had told the Ethiopia National Electoral Board that they were ready and willing to take part in the April elections.
But, he said, the board had chosen to award their party name to a CUD breakaway group, and their party symbol - the "V" for Victory sign - to another party altogether.
"Even if they wanted to stand," he said, "there is now no party name they can associate with, nor any election symbol".
The CUD allege a conspiracy by the ruling party and the government, but their own party has been riven with internal feuds, making it possible for a CUD dissident, Ayele Chamiso, to make a successful bid for the party name.
Many of the most prominent members of the old CUD went abroad as soon as they were released rather than staying in Ethiopia and cultivating their constituencies.
The chairman, Hailu Shawal, and the man who was chosen as mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005, Berhanu Nega, are both still in the United States.
Even without the party name, some of the CUD leaders could have stood as independent candidates, but they have chosen not to do so.
Political analyst Desalegn Rahmato points out that although the government said publicly that those released from prison had had their full civic rights restored, there may have been conditions in the agreement which secured their release which were never made public.
Also, he said, the former prisoners, as individuals, "might be feeling a bit disorientated after two years in jail".
"Perhaps they feel they no longer have the momentum and excitement that they felt in the 2005 elections. That momentum is lost now," he said.
Without that excitement, voter registration and turnout may well be lower than in 2005.
The ruling party, the EPRDF, will be bidding to recover its dominance of the political scene in areas where it did badly last time, like Addis Ababa.
It is not clear whether any of the remaining opposition groups will be able to take on the old CUD's mantle and mount an effective political challenge.