Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Jailed Ethiopian opposition leader freed"

I'm quoted in Barry Malone's Reuters article:
Some analysts said the release [of former judge Birtukan Mideksa] could be a drive to repair some of the damage to the country's democratic credentials following the landslide election victory -- and given that Meles has since consolidated power he can afford to be magnanimous.

"This may be part of a broader campaign to reorient the political system so that it at least appears to be more democratic," said David Shinn, a former U.S. envoy to Ethiopia.

"In fact, it might even become more democratic. Many of the original EPRDF leaders have moved or are moving to the sidelines. Meles has stated that he will not run for prime minister in 2015 and I believe he will not," he told Reuters.
Here's the full text of my response to several of Malone's questions:
This is a hard one to comment on from such a long distance.

Although western donors have been pressuring the Ethiopian government for the release of Birtukan since her imprisonment, I doubt this had much of a role in the government’s decision. Ethiopians in general and the EPRDF in particular do not react well to outside pressure.

This may be part of a broader campaign to reorient the political system so that it at least appears to be more democratic. In fact, it might even become more democratic. Many of the original EPRDF/TPLF leaders have moved or are moving to the sidelines. Meles has stated without qualification that he will not run for prime minister in 2015 and I believe he will not. While the EPRDF will make every effort to stay in power, I don’t believe it ever again wants to find itself winning 99 percent of the seats in parliament.

If the EPRDF had released Birtukan before the election, it would have appeared that the party was responding from a position of weakness and possibly donor pressure. By doing so after the election, it looks like the EPRDF is operating from a position of strength.

If Birtukan is permitted to return to politics, I believe she could be a formidable opponent, although I know nothing about the rumors concerning her health. I think she can also attract support across ethnic lines, although it is not clear to me how deep that cross-ethnic support will go.

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