The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics

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How did a group with its origins in a small Marxist-Leninist insurgency based in the northern most corner of Ethiopia transform itself into one of the most powerful ruling parties in Africa? How do the legacies of protracted civil war and rebel victory shape contemporary Ethiopian politics? Terrence Lyons argues that competition within the hegemonic ruling party explains political outcomes better than a traditional government vs. opposition framework and allows us to observe the nature of politics in Ethiopia.

In my new book I argue the key to understanding the puzzle of Ethiopian politics is found in understanding the origins and organizational logic of the ruling party. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has ruled since 1991 and is simultaneously a ruling party with its ancestry in a victorious insurgent army and a coalition of four vastly different constituent parties. These contradictions, and how they have been managed, shape political outcomes in Ethiopia.

These two legacies, one encouraging hierarchy and centralization, the other ethnic politics and regional autonomy, co-existed in a rough balance from 1991-2015. Sustained protest and a change of party leadership in 2018, however, suggested to many a break with past patterns. I argue, however, that there is significant continuity in how the party is organized and that intra-coalition competition can explain the political crisis of 2016-2018, the rise of a reformist leadership to the top positions of the party, and consider prospects for democratization.

The state of violence

In many ways Ethiopia is a state that remains deeply linked to the political violence of the 1970s and decades of armed struggle. In 1991, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) won the civil war against the brutal regime of the Derg. At the moment of victory, it was a battle-hardened force with experience in administering liberated territory in Tigray and the legitimacy that comes from sacrifice and winning a war.

As is often the case, victorious rebels become powerful authoritarian parties that dominate post-war politics. In many ways the EPRDF reflected this authoritarian legacy, including repressing opposition parties and civil society organizations. The 2015 national elections represented the epitome of the domination, where the ruling party and its affiliates won 100 percent of the seats.

However, I find that there is another characteristic of the EPRDF that arises from the challenges it faced in moving from war to peace that requires a different explanation and an understanding of intraparty political processes. The TPLF needed to transform from a rebel group that mobilized a specific constituency into a ruling party capable of incorporating groups that had not experienced the war in the same ways as Tigray.

It did so by creating ethnically defined affiliates and forming the EPRDF. The Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) joined the TPLF in the coalition, each responsible for governing its respective ethnically defined regional state in a form of ethno-federalism.

The EPRDF, therefore, was simultaneously a party with its origins in a victorious insurgent army – reinforcing centralization and hierarchy – and a coalition of vastly different constituent parties – supporting autonomy, localized identities, and fractious intra-coalition contentious politics. These two contradictory political logics remained in check so long as the strong center, built upon the TPLF, could manage the initially weak regional states and ethnic parties.

Coalitions, competition and conflict

Over time, however, the constituent parties established deeper roots and the leadership of all four parties converged in terms of seniority and experience (see forthcoming research by Arriola et al.). This new pattern of intra-party competition, with its origins in the ethno-federal structures that allowed the TPLF to become a national party, spilled into the open following a period of sustained protests in 2016-2017. Heightened intra-coalition competition provided the opportunity for a new leadership, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed from the Oromo wing, to take over top positions and open up a period of liberalization.

There has been a significant amount of research on the importance of political parties and other institutions to explain the resilience of “hybrid” authoritarian states. My research suggests internal dynamics within strong authoritarian parties can reveal additional fundamental processes that shape political outcomes. It may be that political competition within the authoritarian party matters more than competition with formal opposition.

While electoral processes may be non-competitive, the domination of the ruling party may obfuscate the high levels of contention, deeply rooted cleavages, and personal rivalries that indicate churning behind repressive 100 percent elections. Even under the reformist leadership of Abiy, politics within and between the four parties within the ruling EPRDF are likely to determine political outcomes in the coming years.


Terrence Lyons is Director of the Doctoral Program, the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University. He is the author of The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics (Lynne Rienner 2019) and has published work in Comparative Politics, Democratization, and the Journal of Democracy.


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