Earlier this week, the citizens of Ethiopia carried out voting in controversial elections amid an ongoing conflict and a humanitarian crisis that has gripped northern Tigray. Despite fears of violence, jailed opposition figures and parts of Ethiopia unable to vote, Ethiopia’s first multi-party election in 16 years will be Abiy Ahmed’s first real test. Among Ethiopia’s 109 million registered voters, 37 million chose to participate in the parliamentary election involving 46 parties. In the current election, the electoral board says there are more candidates than ever before. 2015 was the last time the ruling coalition and its allies captured all 547 seats. Voting was originally scheduled to take place in August 2020 but was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Abiy Ahmed was appointed Tigray’s new leader after taking the helm as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition’s head in 2018. After disbanding the party a year later, Ahmed said he wanted to put the historical issues of ethnic division behind him. Under Ahmed’s leadership, the Ethiopian political system underwent radical changes. He was accused of attempting to weaken the federation when he left the ruling coalition and established the Prosperity Party in Tigray. Following this move, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) refused to cooperate and took refuge in Tigray, where they enjoyed widespread support.
In contrast, Abiy Ahmed allowed exiled opponents to return to the country, freeing some who had been incarcerated for life. He was regarded as a “unifier” because of his mixed ethnicity. The TPLF was accused of orchestrating ethnic tensions in Ethiopia by Ahmed’s government after it was allegedly marginalised at the national level. The long-repressive country underwent a wave of political reforms, and a shocking peace deal was signed with its fierce rival, Eritrea. In 1991, the federal government of Ethiopia and regional forces from Tigray engaged in a dispute that continues to this day.
A couple of months ago, Prime Minister Ahmed announced that the first democratic elections would be held in the country within a month, only to postpone them during the COVID-19 outbreak. In response, the TPLF declared that extending his term would violate the constitution. The group held its regional elections, claiming a decisive win. Ahmed’s government subsequently annulled the elections in Tigray.
There was no acknowledgement of the results by the prime minister, and he threatened to veto them. He alleged that the Tigrayans attacked a national military base, which sparked renewed hostilities. In the same year, he won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, however, he launched a military operation within Ethiopia to oust the TPLF as the region’s ruling party after the party seized military bases in what Abiy interpreted as an attempt to overthrow. Thousands of people have been killed in the conflict, and there have been reports of famine and mass hunger.
Abiy’s Vision For The Future
According to the BBC, Abiy considers a single party a means of building national unity and reducing ethnic division. Some critics, however, argue that he is only creating resentment by taking power away from local people and concentrating it in Addis Ababa. This refusal was at the core of the TPLF’s dispute with the prime minister. The other three members of the EPRDF, the Amhara Democratic Party, the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, have also agreed to dissolve.
Parties In Fray
The BBC reported that more than forty parties have fielded candidates, out of which the majority are regional organizations. More than 9,000 candidates are running in federal and regional races, the newspaper reported, adding that this was the highest number of candidates in any Ethiopian election. Nevertheless, opposition parties have claimed that a government crackdown against its officials has disrupted their election preparation plans. There have been calls for boycotts in Ethiopia’s most populous region, Oromia. The TPLF has been designated a terrorist organisation. Some of its leaders have been arrested, while others are on the run or continuing to wage a guerrilla war in Tigray.
As the lone national opposition leader taking part in these elections, Berhanu Nega leads the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party. Professor Tariku, 62, was elected to office as mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005, but his election was thrown out by the then TPLF government. As noted by the Guardian, he was freed because of international pressure after 21 months in prison and sent to the US to take up a teaching post at a university, and returned to Ethiopia after Abiy became prime minister. As a founding member of the Ginbot 7 group, he coordinated a decade-long armed struggle against Ethiopian authorities. As a result of Abiy Ahmed’s reforms, it seems that the possibility of “genuine democracy” is no longer hypothetical.
Democracy’s Leap Into The Abyss
CNN reported that Tigray’s interim government was enacted after the parliament declared the previous administration illegal and voted to replace it. As soon as the interim government opens election offices, the election board will set the date for the rest of the election in Tigray, according to Reuters. The electoral board has also decided to postpone voting until September 6 in another 64 constituencies, citing suspect ballots. 38 constituencies in Tigray voted on Monday, making 102 out of the 547 constituencies absent.
Ethiopia’s federal system is currently dominated by multiple regions that hold a great deal of power, and the elections have only increased tensions over disputed border areas. In February 2021, the electoral body expressed concerns about insufficient security in 98 constituencies and accused some regional governments – including those in Oromia and Amhara – of not taking sufficient measures.
The Somali region, Amhara, Oromia, Harari, Benishangul-Gumuz, South Wollo and other regions throughout Ethiopia face major challenges related to security. Outside Tigray, the conflict has forced nearly 2 million people to flee. The G7 as well as the White House have publicly voiced concern about a retreat from reform, including a warning from Joe Biden that the violence and tensions are hardening in several parts of Ethiopia. The leaders of Ethiopia have to continuously manage a pressing humanitarian crisis, irrespective of what the election result is going to be.