Ethiopians vote next week in delayed elections twice overshadowed by famine warnings and growing reports of atrocities in the war-torn northern Tigray region.
Some 37 million people in Ethiopia, about 110 million, have registered to vote on Monday, although many will have to wait until September to vote due to logistical, legal and security challenges. Here are five things you need to know about crucial surveys in Africa’s second most populous country.
Abiy is looking for a warrant
In areas where elections will be held, voters will elect national and regional parliamentarians. National MPs are tasked with electing the prime minister, who is the head of government, as well as the president, a largely ceremonial role.
Polls will mark the first test of voter support for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, 44, Africa’s youngest leader and Ethiopia’s first in the Oromia region.
Abiy’s appointment as prime minister in 2018 – after years of anti-government protests forced his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, to step down – was initially met by many with a burst of optimism both at home and abroad. abroad.
Within a few months at the head of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, Abiy released tens of thousands of political prisoners and allowed the return of exiled opposition groups. It also announced economic reforms, including the opening of parts of Ethiopia’s tightly controlled markets and the creation of a stock exchange.
In 2019, Abiy received the Nobel Peace Prize, in part, for his reform and for making peace with neighboring Eritrea by ending a long-running border confrontation.
“We will guarantee the unity of Ethiopia,” Abiy said before his last campaign rally on Wednesday, reiterating his commitment to free and fair elections after past votes (all won by the four-party alliance, the Front Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Party (EPRDF)). for allegations of fraud and irregularities. In 2015, the EPRDF and its allies won all parliamentary seats in a process marked by allegations of voter intimidation.
More than a year after taking power, Abiy dissolved the EPRDF coalition as a whole and formed the Prosperity Party (PP) with its political allies.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated the ruling coalition for nearly 30 years before Abiy came to power, refused to follow the EPRDF’s other three ethnic parties in the PP. He accused the prime minister of centralizing power at the expense of Ethiopia’s ethnic-based regions, which he denies. PP officials said the dissolution of the EPRDF would reduce social fragmentation and strengthen democracy, with the long-awaited elections scheduled for August 2020.
But in March last year, Abiy postponed the polls for ten months alleging the COVID-19 pandemic. Elections were postponed for a second time on June 21 due to logistical setbacks, including delays in voter registration and a lack of election officials.
The initial postponement 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, a complaint denied by the government.
The TPLF continued to hold elections – and won in stages – in the northern Tigray region anyway, setting it on a path of collision with the federal government.
On November 4, after months of tensions, Abiy ordered Tigray for federal forces to accuse the TPLF of launching an attack to take over the northern command of the Ethiopian army. The then regional leaders denied the allegation, accusing the federal government and its longtime enemy Eritrea, whose troops have supported Ethiopian soldiers in the fighting, of launching a “coordinated attack” against it.
Abiy promised a swift military campaign to stop and disarm the TPLF leadership and militias. However, the struggle continues and reports of massacres, rapes and widespread famine continue to emerge.
It is estimated that the conflict killed thousands of people and displaced more than two million. Last week, humanitarian agencies warned that 350,000 people in Tigray are on the brink of starvation, a crisis that several diplomats have described as “man-made” amid allegations of forced famine. The Ethiopian government has rejected the figure and says food aid has reached 5.2 million in the region of six million people.
The fight means there will be no vote in Tigray’s 38 constituencies, where military personnel who often play a key role in transporting election material are busy with the conflict.
Overall, voting has been delayed in 110 of 547 constituencies. Some areas were deemed too unsafe to hold a vote, affected by armed campaigns and ethnic violence that has worsened under Abiy, as regions push for more freedoms.
In other cases, the election board was unprepared, with printing errors on the ballots and other logistical setbacks, making it impossible for a timely election at all tables.
A second round of voting will be held on September 6 to accommodate many of the non-participating constituencies on Monday, but not in Tigray, where no date has been set.
Boycott of the opposition
The PP is the leader in a field of nearly 50 parties competing for parliamentary seats. It has registered 2,432 candidates in the elections, while the next largest party, Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (ECSJ), has 1,385 candidates.
However, some prominent opposition parties have said they will boycott the polls in protest against the imprisonment of their leaders and other concerns about the justice of the process.
Among them are the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC).
Several high-profile OFC members remain behind bars after a wave of riots last year sparked by the assassination of a popular Oromo musician, and the OLF leader is under house arrest. The leader of the Balderas party for true democracy, Eskinder Nega, was also arrested and is contesting the election from prison.
On Sunday, five opposition parties issued a joint statement saying the campaign outside the capital, Addis Ababa, “has been hit by serious problems, including assassinations, attempts to kill and beat candidates.”
Still, some choose to stay in the race in hopes that their participation will help the country in its democratization.
“We are very hopeful, as we say it internally, we give the ruling party a chance for its money,” Nathaniel Felega of Ethiopia’s Citizens for Social Justice party told Al Jazeera. “We will continue to do so until the end of the campaigns. And we hope that the next parliament will not be as boring as the previous ones.”
View from the outside
Despite Abyy’s promises, there are growing international concerns about whether the election will be fair.
The European Union has said it will not observe the vote after denying its requests to import communications equipment.
In response, Ethiopia said external observers “are not essential or necessary to certify the credibility of the elections,” although it has since received observers deployed by the African Union.
Last week, the U.S. State Department said it was “very concerned about the environment in which these upcoming elections will be held,” citing the arrest of opposition politicians, harassment of independent media, partisan activities of local and regional governments and many interethnic and inter-community conflicts throughout Ethiopia ”.
Earlier this month, Abiy accused “traitors” and “outsiders” of working to undermine Ethiopia, while this week, spokeswoman Billene Seyoum described the election as an opportunity for citizens to “exercise their democratic rights.” and accused the international media of mounting a “murder of Prime Minister characters.”