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Cablegate: Utds -- A Tigrean Opposition Emerges

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UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 ADDIS ABABA 000086

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SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL PBTS ET
SUBJECT: UTDS -- A TIGREAN OPPOSITION EMERGES

SUMMARY
-------

1. (SBU) Sixteen years after coming to power as part of the
Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF), six years after
being ejected from the party, and two years after seeking
formal registration, the Union of Tigreans for Democracy and
Sovereignty (UTDS) emerged in November as Ethiopia's first
recognized Tigrean opposition party. While the party has
only limited formal support, mostly among Tigrean youth, and
does not intend to participate in the coming local elections
in April, the emergence of an opposition from the ruling
TPLF's core base and composed of former TPLF Central
Committee members poses a credible challenge that could
potentially threaten the governing regime. Although UTDS
leaders talk a good game about representational democracy and
strong national institutions, their ability to gain broader,
and overt, support from within Tigray and from other regions
will be the best indicator of their appeal as Ethiopia moves
toward national elections in 2010. UTDS Chairman -- and
former regional president of Tigray -- Ato Gebru Asrat and
UTDS Executive Committee member -- and former Ethiopian
Ambassador to Eritrea -- Ato Awalom Weldu introduced their
new party to Ambassador and PolOffs on December 28. End
Summary.

UTDS'S STRUCTURE, PLATFORM, AND SUPPORT
---------------------------------------

2. (U) Ato Gebru and Ato Awalom claim that they initially
split from the TPLF during the Ethiopia-Eritrea war because
of their different perspectives toward Eritrea, including
their perception that the Ethiopian Government (GoE) made
mistakes which led to the war and its poor planning and
implementation of the war. Still, they argue that their
differences today reach far beyond those lines. Democracy,
the UTDS argues, is "not on the right track" in Ethiopia
today; civil society and the media remain severely impeded
while institutions of governance, including the judiciary and
National Elections Board (NEB), are not independent from the
government or party. They noted the lack of any
differentiation between the state, government, and ruling
party in Ethiopia under the EPRDF's reign. The UTDS officers
complained that the EPRDF maintained a heavy hand in all
sectors of society and the economy throughout Ethiopia and
particularly objected to the "endowment" funds, or
party-statals, contributing benefits only to the EPRDF and
not to the public. The plank that most set the UTDS's
platform apart from those of other opposition groups in
Ethiopia, however, was their position that Ethiopia should
regain sovereign territorial access to the sea. UTDS claims
that gaining seats in Parliament is not its objective in the
immediate term, but rather that it aims to increase public
awareness of an alternative view to TPLF/EPRDF rule.

3. (SBU) The UTDS officers do not claim widespread public
support. Upon registering, UTDS was only able to present
1,200 signatures of supporters, who were mostly youth and
only few of whom were former TPLF members. Still, its
officials are emphatic that Tigray is ready for an opposition
party, particularly in urban areas. Organizationally, UTDS
has a Central Committee composed of 13 individuals, but only
three of these are former TPLF officials. The officials
argued that the focus on "new blood" will help counter other
opposition groups' concerns about the UTDS as solely a
disgruntled cadre of unreformed former TPLF officials who
would govern how the TPLF has. While the officials
acknowledged still being acquaintances with some military and
TPLF officials, they do not claim their support. They do,
however, claim that they have been approached by some Tigrean
civil servants expressing support, but asking to be
"clandestine" members of UTDS for fear of losing their jobs
if they are officially associated with UTDS.

OPERATIONAL CHALLENGES
----------------------

4. (SBU) The officials reported that while they recognize the
value of establishing an opposition party with country-wide
support, their attempted outreach to other ethnic groups and
parties before the 2005 elections failed as partners became
either incarcerated or focused on their own survival.
Ultimately, the UTDS chose to register solely as a Tigrean
party to focus on its core constituency while prospects for

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broader partnership looked poor. Despite UTDS efforts to
register, it consistently encountered bureaucratic
impediments from the NEB. While the UTDS sought, in its
view, to present key elements of its platform in its official
registration documents, the NEB refused to consider the
application that presented what it saw as criticism of the
government (GoE). According to the UTDS, NEB objections to
the inclusion of platform elements that called for reforming
GoE deficiencies -- such as the lack of voting independence
of EPRDF MPs, the lack of NEB independence, the absence of
recognized rights of nations and nationalities in practice,
and objections to the distribution of government resources to
the regions by the House of Federation -- allowed the NEB to
prolong delays in UTDS' registration.

5. (SBU) Due to its late registration, UTDS has decided to
refrain from participating in the coming April local
elections. Instead, its officials argue that the party will
focus initially on its internal organization form its sole
office in Mekele with an eye toward holding a General
Assembly to strategize on its future. The officials argue
that they will not repeat the error of the TPLF in seeking to
create for themselves partner parties allied with other
ethnic groups that are not genuinely representative of the
will of the people they claim to represent. Instead, the
UTDS will focus on outreach to existent opposition parties
from other regions. The officials acknowledge that they will
likely face significant scrutiny from other opposition
parties who perceive them as just an off-shoot of unreformed
TPLF members, but argue that the strong role of "new blood"
in the party combined with sincere outreach will overcome
this challenge.

COMMENT
-------

6. (SBU) While the UTDS -- as evidenced by its two
soft-spoken, middle aged, former party leaders -- does not
present itself as a robust or dynamic party of new ideas, its
leadership team of ex-TPLF Central Committee members and
freedom fighters certainly poses a strong threat to the
ruling TPLF-based coalition and represents a potentially
attractive alternative option to Tigreans who have grown
disenchanted with TPLF. Its leaders were striking in their
humility and sober assessments of their own levels of support
and acknowledgment of other opposition parties' likely
skepticism on partnership possibilities. UTDS's desire for
sovereign territorial access to the sea, further poses a
potential hurdle which potential partner opposition parties
(who seek international community support) are unlikely to
embrace. Ultimately, in light of UTDS's audacity in
establishing a Tigrean opposition and avoidance of the coming
local elections in favor of coalescing into a vocal alternate
voice, the GoE's reaction toward UTDS will ultimately prove
yet another strong indicator of the government's willingness
to tolerate a vocal opposition.


YAMAMOTO

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
 
 
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