The political parties that will take part in next week’s twice-delayed polls in Ethiopia have ended their election campaigns, with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed predicting that the country will successfully hold a peaceful vote.
The June 21 elections will be held at a time of widespread ethnic conflict and economic challenges, as well as a month-long conflict in the northern Tigray region, where the United Nations warns that at least 350,000 people are facing hunger. Opposition parties in other key regions have said they will boycott the polls, the sixth since the overthrow of the communist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.
“Everyone says we will fight, but we will show them differently,” Abiy said Wednesday during his first and final rally at a packed stadium in the southern city of Jimma.
“The forces that saved Ethiopia from collapse will make the Horn of Africa the center of Africa’s power,” he added, wearing sunglasses and a traditional cloth tuxedo.
“I tell all Ethiopians [engaged] in the struggle to ensure a peaceful, democratic and prosperous Ethiopia: as long as the Ethiopians are united in the same spirit and the same heart, there is no force on earth that can stop us, ”he said, speaking in a mixture of his mother tongue – Afan Oromo, the language of the region and the national Amharic language.
The Abyy Prosperity Party is fielding the majority of candidates in national parliamentary races and is the firm favorite to win, with a wide reach unmatched by other political parties.
For the 44-year-old, this Monday’s polls are an opportunity to win a popular mandate after coming to power in 2018 after years of anti-government protests.
After his appointment, Abiy promised to review the government and enact democratic reforms, with the ultimate goal of being free and fair elections (a first historic story) by 2020.
But in March last year, citing the risks of the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s electoral body announced it would postpone the vote for a year. The decision angered much of the country’s political opposition, which accused the ruling party of using the pandemic as an excuse to illegally extend its term in power, a complaint denied by the government.
Last month a second postponement of weeks was announced due to logistical hiccups, including the training of election staff and the printing and distribution of ballots.
Despite being presented as a nationwide poll, Monday’s vote will not be held in nearly a fifth of the country’s 547 constituencies, including Tigray’s 38 seats and 64 more nationwide for about 110 millions of people. Most of the delayed votes are scheduled for Sept. 6, but no date has yet been set for Tigray, where more than five million people need emergency food aid.
Abiy ordered a ground and air military operation in Tigray in early November 2020 after accusing the then ruling party in the region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), of orchestrating attacks on the Tigray camps. federal army, a complaint rejected by TPLF officials.
Abiy, whose forces are backed by Eritrean troops and fighters from the Amhara region in Ethiopia, declared victory in late November when the army entered the regional capital, Mekelle. However, the struggle continues and reports of massacres, rapes and widespread famine continue to emerge.
The United States, historically an ally of Ethiopia, but an increasingly vocal critic as the Tigray conflict continues, has expressed alarm at the conditions under which the vote will take place.
The arrest of prominent opposition leaders and ethnic conflicts involving the country’s gangs poses “obstacles to a free and fair electoral process and whether Ethiopians would perceive them as credible,” the Department of State spokesman said last week. ‘State, Ned Price.
“The exclusion of large segments of the electorate from this contest due to security issues and internal displacement is of particular concern,” he added.
The European Union said in May that it would not send observers to the polls, citing that no agreement was reached with the government on basic issues such as communications and the independence of observers.
The Oromo Federalist Congress and the Oromo Liberation Front, two of the most prominent parties in Oromia, the nation’s most populous region, withdrew from the race, complaining that their candidates have been arrested and their charges vandals.
But supporters of opposition parties that took part in the upcoming polls on Wednesday took to the streets of the capital, Addis Ababa, crowding city squares and blocking traffic with noisy parades and singing and dancing.
The Balderas party, whose leader is behind bars, marched into the city center in a tough procession led by men on horseback dragged by a convoy of ear-splitting speakers.
“We are gathering for the people, although we do not believe that this vote will be totally free or fair,” said Zebiba Ibrahim, a 25-year-old opposition party candidate.
“We’re doing the best we can, so our voice can be heard.”
In Meskel Square, in the heart of the capital, another opposition party, Ezema, gathered supporters wrapped in Ethiopian flags and chanting slogans for a final rally.
“In the previous elections, no rallies could be held, nothing could be done,” said Temesgen Getahun, a 37-year-old hotel worker who was watching the upcoming holidays.
“If you went out on the street you were imprisoned, so … considering these elections, this is fine.”