When Hawassa, capital of a Southern regional state, hosted the 11th congress of the ruling EPRDF last week for the third time in the post-Dergue era, none of its 20 founding members of the executive committee were in attendance.
Neither of the senior political leaders of the coalition who took part in the 1994 second convention of the party held in the same town appeared at the most significant Congress of the party, which takes place every two-year. Last week was also the first time when the Congress was not attended by these senior politicians since the ruling coalition held its first congress in Tenbien, Tigray Regional State, in 1991, ushering a change of generation among EPRDF leadership.
The party's leadership and political culture of the democratic centralism have never seen such significant erosion as last weekend. The delegates of the four coalition parties deliberated and evaluated the performance of the Front in the last three years and set out the core issues to be addressed in the next two years.
Never was the EPRDF leadership seen as fragmented as last week. The coalition members and the leadership were about to hear and see a significant divergence unthinkable in the last two decades. All this took place last week under tight security. Checkpoints were installed on roads between the capital and Hawassa, the city that welcomed its guests warmly with flags and several tents designated to serve refreshments to the visitors.
The Congress took place in a context of concern about the unrest and instability throughout the country caused by mob justice and breaches in the rule of law. The situation pushed internal displacements in the country to one of its highest peaks. Ethiopia ranks today as a country with one of the largest populations of internally-displaced people, joining the ranks of war-torn Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq and South Sudan.
With the theme of "National Unity for Versatile Prosperity" the Congress was officially opened with lively and cheerful theatrical and musical performances, which the Chairman, Abiy Ahmed (PhD), described as grasping the essence of the meeting.
"I think we should adjourn this meeting, the musical theatre covered it all," Abiy quipped disarming an otherwise edgy delegate.
They were a thousand voting delegates from the four-member party coalition. An additional 1,000 people also joined the Congress assembled from regional administrations, four sister parties and representatives of civil societies. Opposition political parties also attended the session for the first time in the history of the coalition, since 1989.
Berhanu Nega (PhD), a leader of Patriotic Ginbot 7, exiled for a decade and whose party was listed as a terrorist group just a few months ago, was one of the opposition politicians present. Those seated at the back welcomed him with applause when he entered the hall after the convention began.
"The seniors should leave the floor for the new generation," Abiy said, addressing a crowd that had no senior members of the party in its midst. "And yet the new generation should not blame the seniors anymore."
Abiy admitted that good governance remained a major problem in connection with multi-layered leadership weaknesses.
"We've to call a spade a spade," he said. "We shouldn't label and try to find cover for our problems."
He urged, and stressed, upholding the rule of law as the major pillar the party will focus on.
Abiy also ascertained the significance of federalism in his opening remarks.
The opening was followed by various group discussions by delegates of the ruling coalition in closed sessions to the media. They had intense debates on a 71-page report presented for discussion and approval to the Congress. The report touched on the political activities of the Front, democratic process building and the developmental and macroeconomic activities of the nation.
The groups, which held discussions throughout the nights, talked on the internal organisation of the party, the performance of the second Growth & Transformation Plan, and engaged in heated deliberations on recent political situations in the country, which they characterised as being "in a turmoil". In line with the tradition of the party, the delegates approved the report unanimously with no opposition.
However, Mehari Taddele (PhD), an expert in public administration, policy and management, sees the Front losing its long-standing operational principle of democratic centralism.
"The centripetal equilibrium of EPRDF is no more, as the principle of democratic centralism is debilitated," Mehari argued, in his piece for Ethiopia Insight,a website which publishes news, analysis and commentary.
His analysis explains the various conventions of the coalition political blocs held during the past three weeks and ahead of the Congress. They have elected their political bureaus, central committee members, chairs and deputy chairpersons, all within the average age of 36-year. Two of the parties in the coalition changed their names, a first in the Front's history. ANDM, which changed its name to Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), also announced that it is considering reforming the party's political ideology of revolutionary democracy.
"These 'democratic' name changes are ostensibly superficial," Mehari said. "But this semantics could be the wind in the sails of change."
Despite the actions that were taken among coalition parties, executive committee members of EPRDF argue that the program and ideology of Front remain the same.
"We've the ideology of pro-poor developmental democracy," said Getachew Reda, a TPLFit re-elected to the political bureau with a standing ovation. "That will remain the same for years to come."
Getachew is not a lone voice in defending the Front's historical ideological ground. Tola Bireso (PhD), the Front's executive committee member from the rebranded Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), also defends the idea that no ideological change will be forthcoming in the party.
"We didn't change our ideology," Tola told Fortune. "Yet, we're facing challenges in implementing federalism, which we believe needs to be revitalised immediately."
TPLF's chair, Debretsion Gebremichale (PhD), said during the convention that, "the ideology just shows our social base like any other party does."
"Unless you misrepresent the term 'revolutionary' in a negative way, revolutionary democracy stands for the peasantry," he told the Congress.
Not only party members like Debretsion and Tola wish to uphold the organisational principles of EPRDF. Experts also do.
Mehari believes that the negative implications of the current politics have to be averted to save federalism. Democratic citizenship; overhauling democratic institutions; building a nationwide common interest; establishing an inclusive national dialogue; and the consensus-based constitutional federal system will possibly rescue the federal system, according to Mehari.
However, Girma Seifu, the lone opposition parliamentarian during the 2010 election, attributes the new developments in the party to positive changes
"The political sphere has changed, and it has shown an improvement," Girma told Fortune.
Yilkal Getinet, another opposition party figure, however, argues to the contrary.
"I don't see major change at this point," Yilkal said. "We're still troubled with the election institutions."
The much-anticipated convention that missed most senior members and prominent faces was concluded after the Front elected its chairperson and deputy. The voting, which was made public to all participants, was held with three candidates. Million Matewos from SPDM nominated Abiy; Lemma Megerssa of ODP named Demeke Mekonnen; and, Gedu Andargachew of ADP nominated Debretsion of the TPLF.
The candidacy of Debretsion was challenged by members from TPLF, while he himself wanted to be withdrawn from the process.
Out of the 178 tallies of the 180 Council members who cast their vote, 176 voted in favour of Abiy as their chairman. Demeke Mekonnen of ADP won the deputy chairmanship with 149 votes, while Debretsion got 15 votes.
The Front closed its three-day convention by outlining its plan to make it a unified single party by the next Congress to be held in Dessie, Amhara Regional State. The members agreed to gear up for the study commissioned for this purpose and finalise the unification two years later. Despite the differences of aspirations among them, the four parties of the Front preferred to conclude their convention with an unspoken agreement postponing debates on the fundamental issues.
The idea of becoming a unified party is far-fetched and motivated by the current development in the political hemispheres, according to Yilkal.
"The party has now reached the point where they couldn't operate owing to inter-party conflicts," he said. "Their decision is not based on consensus and social development."
Yet, Getachew Reda described the Congress as one of a kind.
"We're able to discuss our achievements and problems openly," Getachew told Fortune.
Many pundits conceded that the Front remains together avoiding implosion due to internal squabbles and external pressure is an accomplishment on its own. They see it as a move that spares the nation from going down the hill.
"The emphasis in this congress was the rule of law not so much about democracy or constitutional limitations," observed a seasoned political analyst.