By Barry Malone
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) — Girma Seifu was at home hosting a dinner party to celebrate what looked like a sure parliamentary seat win when he got the phone call that would force him into the spotlight.
Ethiopia’s opposition coalition, the eight-party Medrek, had won only one seat in the 547-seat parliament — his.
“The secretary general of the party called,” says the newly elected MP, in his Addis Ababa office. “He said, ‘you could be the only one’. I didn’t expect that.”
The almost complete wipeout of opposition in the Horn of Africa country’s parliament was a shock. Analysts had expected the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to win but not by that margin.
Aside from Girma and one independent parliamentarian, every winning MP is either a member of the EPRDF or from one of several closely allied parties.
The European Union and the United States have said the poll did not meet international standards. The country’s main opposition parties are calling for a rerun, citing pre-poll intimidation and even the stuffing of ballot boxes.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says his government won on its development record and he has offered an olive branch to the defeated opposition with the possible setting up of inter-party forums outside parliament to discuss major legislation.
Girma may also be given extra time to speak in the house.
“I think they are going to give me more time because otherwise they could have the parliamentary discussions at the EPRDF headquarters,” he said.
Girma won his seat in Addis Ababa’s Mercato district, seen as Africa’s biggest open-air market and one of the city’s poorer areas.
“I won because a lot of my voters were merchants who are economically independent,” he said. “They weren’t civil servants or unemployed and subject to the same forms of intimidation as a lot of other people. I was lucky.”
Girma’s victory was slim, however, and he only beat his ruling party opponent by a margin of 114 votes in a constituency where both he and his father were born.
“If it was a game of football, you could say I won in a penalty shoot-out,” he says.
The father of two has been involved in politics since the last elections in 2005 but this will be his first time in parliament, where he will be without a leader.
The 2005 elections ended with the then opposition disputing the government’s victory. Riots broke out in Addis Ababa in which 193 protestors and seven policemen were killed. The top opposition leaders were jailed until 2007.
The leader of Girma’s party, the Unity for Democracy and Justice, which is part of Medrek, was sent back to jail, however, for violating the terms of her pardon.
For Girma, the reason Birtukan Mideksa is in jail is clear.
“It’s part of the game the government plays,” he says. “She was jailed because she’s a strong lady. If she had been free, the result might have been different.”
Despite the fact the opposition is set to challenge the result in court, Girma doesn’t hold out much hope for a rerun and is resolved to going it alone.
And the novice politician is putting on a brave face ahead of the challenge.
Meles is famously sharp and well known for his sometimes humiliating putdowns.
But Girma says he will not let that worry him.
“If I have a question, I have to ask,” he says. “I know he is a strong opponent. But I won’t be intimidated because of that. I will simply put my issues forward.” (Editing by Richard Lough and Diana Abdallah)