Politicians from Ethiopia’s governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition have approved the idea of forming a new political party—a plan that has been backed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Mr Abiy said the new Ethiopian Prosperity Party would help break down ethnic divisions, unite the country and become the national driving force to replace the three-decade old ethnically based coalition.
The Coalition, which has been winning nearly every seat in the polls, is composed of four key parties; the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara Democratic Party, Oromo Democratic Party and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement.
But one coalition member, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which dominated the government before Mr Abiy came to power, has refused to join the new party, fearing its influence will be eroded.
On Thursday, 135 members of the Congress, 45 from each member of the coalition, met in Addis Ababa and “unanimously” endorsed the merger of parties in the ruling coalition into one party.
The Congress, the largest organ of the country’s ruling coalition also approved the programmes for the Prosperity Party.
In a tweet, the prime minister called the merger a “crucial step in harnessing our energy to work toward a shared vision”.
The merger was significant as Mr Abiy attempts to break away from Ethiopia’s revolutionary ideology while keeping the country united.
Ethiopians were on Thursday waiting for the decisive vote in Sidama region, which could determine whether the country creates a new federal state with relative self-rule.
If locals approve the poll question and vote for autonomy, it would mean a 10th federal state, based largely on ethnic balancing, could be formed in the area whose biggest city is Hawassa in southern Ethiopia.
The new party, officials say, the merger is not new and had been on the cards since 2008, more than a decade after the war with Eritrea ended.
An Ethiopian political leader familiar with the issues said the idea was put on hold because the leaders at the time were still the same ones who had won the war against the dictatorship of Mengistu Hailemariam.
As one party the EPDRF, which controls parliament, could consolidate its foothold in preparation for next year’s elections.
Meles Tekea, the Ethiopian ambassador to Kenya, said the country is keen to hold a free and fair election on time, dismissing reports it could be delayed.
But its success depends on how leaders negotiate the fate of TPLF.
“The TPLF is one of three powerful parties,” Ibrahim Khamis, a retired Kenyan diplomat told The EastAfrican, also referring to the ADP and ODP.
“The Ahmara-based party supports restoration of the old monarchy system, but will not mind being part of the current federal system, so it supports Abiy Ahmed. The Tigriyan Party—TPLF—is in favour of a loose federal system with little control from the centre, so it is anti-Abiy and the Amhara-based party.”
The other major party from Oromo, he said, is divided between Mr Abiy and populist Jawar Mohamed, his erstwhile ally and now possible challenger in the next polls.
“My take is that Mr Abiy, with massive state resources, will return to power,” he added.
The coalition, which has been in power for nearly three decades, has largely been run on a revolutionary, leftist ideology, and often fronted people from certain ethnic communities as front-runners to be PM.
“If you came from a smaller tribe or one that is not seen as elite, there was no chance of you becoming Prime Minister,” the Ethiopian politician told The EastAfrican. “A merger of the party will change that because it is admitting anyone, small or big, from all over the country.”
Since 1991, some 200 different groups have championed either secession or greater autonomy. The Coalition’s response has been mostly to crush the dissent or jail opponents.
Mr Abiy’s allowing of a referendum is seen as a better option, though risky as well. Critics say this too has its limits because it cannot guarantee the freedoms demanded.
Traditionally a part of the larger and more diverse Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), the Sidama began agitating for their own state, arguing that they are a significant ethnic group in the country. To be lumped together in a state with more than 50 ethnic communities, they argued, was unfair.
The Sidama, estimated to be about four per cent of Ethiopia’s population, are behind the populous Oromo, who form a third of the population, Amhara, Tigrayans and Somalis.
The Sidama’s path to a referendum, a guaranteed constitutional right in Ethiopia, was frequently muzzled, often with deadly consequences. When the vote was delayed in May this year, at least two dozen people were killed in the ensuing violence.
However, on Wednesday Mr Abiy said the vote would be “an expression of the democratisation path Ethiopia has set out on”.
The referendum alone could expose the soft underbelly of Ethiopia. Since 1995 when Ethiopia created a new federal constitution, regions have been divided along ethnic lines. With the exception of the SNNPR, the other eight states are named after or dominated by specific tribes.
Legally, the new state and its administration cannot be immediately established, since a transition mechanism has to establish how to relocate the capital of the SNNPR from Hawassa to elsewhere, in order to allow for the establishment of the new regional headquarters.
If the Sidama vote for a new state, other smaller ethnic groups could start demanding for their own federal state, forcing a series of referendums.
“The challenges that we have are passing clouds,” Mr Meles told The EastAfrican, referring to the changing political scene in his country. “Whenever the survival of the country is at stake, we will always surmount the challenges.”
Mr Abiy, who just won a Nobel Peace Prize for his reconciliation efforts with Eritrea and other peace efforts in the region, has something else in his sights: He is pulling away from the revolutionary ideology of his predecessors, Meles Zenawi and Hailemariam Desalegn.
He is now focusing on what he calls medemer or synergy, calling on Ethiopians to “join hands” and get the country unstuck.
Medemer is also the title of his book, seen as a manifesto to replace Meles Zenawi’s ideology that sought to dispatch Mengistu Hailemariam.
It calls for co-operation and sacrifice for the sake of the country and beyond. A relaunch was planned for the book in Nairobi on Saturday.