The Ethiopians headed to elections on Monday to choose among 46 parties and more than 9,000 candidates – “a record”, according to the electoral board – even though the ruling Amhara Prosperity Party (APP) led by Abiy Ahmed has the highest chances of victory.
With a limited contest and deep divisions, the elections were held in parts of Ethiopia while in other parts were delayed due to security and logistical issues.
Most major opposition leaders are in jail and their affiliated parties decided to boycott the vote in Oromia while others also cited government intimidation. The Oromos account for one-third of Ethiopia’s 110 million strong population. Currently Abiy’s ruling coalition and its allies hold all 547 national parliamentary seats.
“There is a lack of electoral competition there because the two main opposition parties have boycotted the election, saying that conditions were unfair and that they have suffered repression. That has contributed to growing violence in the form of an insurgency in Oromia. It is those types of dynamics that indicate the elections are unlikely to bring peace and stability and instead could fuel existing violence and divisions,” William Davison, a senior analyst for Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group told Al-Ahram Weekly.
This is the first electoral test for Abiy since he took office on a pledge to end repression, although there are already concerns about the integrity of the polls.
After taking office, Abiy dissolved the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a party that was dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), an alliance of four ethnically based parties.
Due to the civil unrest and war that led to logistical failures in many regions in the country, there will be no voting in 102 of Ethiopia’s 547 constituencies. Tigray, which held elections last year in defiance of the federal government, will not be voting at all. In Sidama, polling agents postponed voting till Tuesday while Somali and Harar previously delayed voting until September due to problems with ballot papers and disputes. In two regions that did vote, the Amhara region and the Southern Nations, opposition parties complained their agents were beaten and their badges confiscated. Voting was also not held in some areas of the Benishangul-Gumuz region after ethnic violence prevented voter registration.
“Those who support the prime minister and those from opposition parties are still competing in the election and both consider this to be a legitimate process and therefore they will consider the subsequently formed government to be legitimate, assuming there are no significant opposition complaints about voting and counting,” Davison said.
“But for any of the parties and their supporters who are not participating in the election, and of course the electorate in Tigray, they will consider this to be an illegitimate democratic process. That is particularly the case in Oromia, which is Ethiopia’s most populous region and therefore has the most federal parliament constituencies,” he continued.
As the conflict in Tigray continues, Abiy vowed to cling onto power in a leaked audio clip. In an APP meeting that was leaked in early June: “to die rather than hand over power to them,” he said, implying that he would rule the country “for the coming 10 years,” while discussing the internal fallout from the crisis in Tigray.
Ethiopia under Abiy has stoked tensions with Egypt and Sudan, the Nile River downstream countries, as it continues filling the Renaissance Dam which raises fears about the interruption of water flow in these overpopulated countries.
The country’s annual inflation hit 20 per cent and growth is forecast at just two per cent this year after topping 10 per cent before the pandemic and the Tigray conflict.
Being a Nobel laureate doesn’t mean being a peace initiator all the time. Sometimes it’s the beginning of a fall from grace. The ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Peace Prize in 1991 as an icon of democracy, ended her rule tainted with brutalities against the Muslim Rohingya community. The Ethiopian prime minister, who was awarded Nobel Prize less than two years ago, turned out to be an architect of war with his forces accused of massacres and ethnic cleansing in Tigray.
The issue of the Tigray war in Ethiopia is one point that has overshadowed the elections held to decide the future of the ruling party led by Abiy.
Despite desperate conditions in Ethiopia, from a deep local conflict to a destabilised economy and famine, Abiy billed the parliamentary elections that started on Monday after a controversial postponement earlier in May as proof of his commitment to “democracy”.
For Abiy, the elections serve as a new chance to burnish his image amid the brutal war in Tigray with other entrenched ethnic conflicts and security issues.
He started his term in 2018 – after a long ethnic conflict had led to the resignation of his predecessor – with radically democratic changes that had been long awaited, including the freeing of imprisoned dissidents, the return of exiles, a formal apology for state brutality and a landmark peace deal with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s old foe.
Not long after these pro-reform moves, Abiy launched a military operation in which he deployed troops to the northern region of Tigray to oust the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) as the region’s ruling party. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused the Eritrean army, which was aiding the Ethiopian government campaign, of committing widespread massacres against the Tigrayans and the TPLF which dominated the country’s military and government before Abiy took office in 2018.
The United Nations has warned that over 350,000 people are living in famine conditions in the area, because of the seven month long civil war that has displaced more than two million people and left millions in need of humanitarian assistance. Abiy denied the hunger crisis in a recent interview with BBC.
Abiy who was celebrated as a promising African leader at the beginning of his term, has had his image tarnished in the eyes of the West and the US. The G7 summit condemned the atrocities in Tigray and the US imposed sanctions on Ethiopia over abuses there.
Pekka Haavisto, the European Union’s special envoy to Ethiopia, stated that the meetings with the country’s leadership in February reveal that “they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years.”
Added to the major issue of the Tigray war, Ethiopia’s ruling Amhara Prosperity Party (APP) – only established in 2019 – was far from realising prosperity and wellbeing for the Ethiopian people as the Ethiopian army blocked the World Food Programme aid to Tigray that was supposed to reach 1.4 million people, causing a severe famine that claimed the lives of thousands. Abiy also presided over other security and political crises that erupted in the country, from the borderlands with Sudan to the ethnic Oromo heartlands around the capital, Addis Ababa.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly