Ethiopians put PM Abiy to the test in poll overshadowed by Tigray conflict

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Ethiopians are voting in a delayed national election seen as a day of reckoning for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as he seeks to boost his legitimacy. But the elections are taking place against a backdrop of war and famine in the northern Tigray region and questions over the poll's credibility.

The poll, scheduled for August 2020 but delayed due to Covid-19, is Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s first electoral test since he came to power in 2018, breaking with decades of authoritarian rule.

Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his work in ending a 20-year old territorial dispute with Eritrea. Last week he called on Ethiopians to ensure “the nation’s first attempt at free and fair elections”.

He hopes to win a majority of the 547 seats in the federal parliament. But the vote is taking place in just one fifth of Ethiopia’s constituencies.

It has been postponed indefinitely in war-torn Tigray region in the north and has been delayed in other parts of the country due to security and logistical problems.

While Abiy Ahmed's ruling Prosperity Party, formed in 2019 by merging groups who made up the previous ruling coalition, is widely expected to hang on to power, deep rifts have emerged in Ethiopian society.

“This election might be the worst,” Wassihun Gebreegziabher, a professor at Welkite University told RFI. “The political situation in the country has become very difficult, security is fragile, many places are under war, and the ruling party has already lost its legitimacy in the eyes of society.

"Many opponents are in prison. All this shows that this electoral process will not be [good] for the community, but the government is going to benefit from it.”

'First real election'

While acknowledging there were “serious challenges” to these polls, Ethiopia's election chief Birtukan Midekssa noted that more parties and candidates were running than ever before.

“I call on the international community to support Ethiopia on its democratic journey, stressful and imperfect though it is,” she wrote in The National Interest.

Professor Melisew Dejene of Awassa University also struck a more upbeat note, highlighting more cross-party political debate this time round compared to previous elections.

“This is maybe the first real election. Seeing opposition parties selling their ideas was really unexpected,” he told RFI. “Even the government-funded media are holding live political debates.”

‘We expected better from Abiy’

The polls are nonetheless overshadowed by a spike in ethnic violence, with hundreds of people killed in the Amhara, Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions in recent months.

Opposition groups have accused Ethiopia’s ruling party of harassment, manipulation and threats of violence, which echo the country’s troubled past.

Some prominent opposition parties are boycotting the election, notably in the country's most populous region, Oromia, from where Abiy hails.

The Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) decided to boycott after several of their prominent figures were imprisoned on charges of terrorism.

"The political space is shrinking. Our offices were closed down,” OFC's leader, Merera Gudina, told RFI. “A year back we had more than 200, now we have only three political leaders from our party. Hundreds across the Oromia region are detained, several thousand if you count the activists.

“We expected better from Abiy,” he continued. “Three years back, we were much more optimistic. But then the government almost declared war against us. A year back we were mobilising millions of people. The government panicked and so we were simply forced out of the political game.”

Ethopia ‘not ready’ for elections

The absence of political figures and some parties' boycotting has made for a limited race.

The main opposition parties in the running are Balderas and EzeMa. Balderas’s leader, Eskinder Nega, is currently in prison and candidate Geletaw Zeleke expressed deep reservations over the polls.

“Even the European Union group said in their report that the pre-election process is below the international standard,” he told RFI. “And our assessment says that too. So we fear that Ethiopia is not ready to hold elections now.”

The EU said it will not observe the vote after its requests to import communications equipment were denied.

In response, Ethiopia said external observers “are neither essential nor necessary to certify the credibility of an election,” although it has since welcomed observers from the African Union.

Meanwhile the United Nations secretary-general has noted the “challenging” environment and warned against acts of violence.

Elections in the Harar and Somali regions, along with the 40 constituencies and six regions where polls were postponed in May due to disruptions to voter registration, are now scheduled for 6 September.

But no date has been set for voting in Tigray's 38 constituencies where thousands of civilians have been killed and the UN has warned of growing famine.

The lack of voting in Tigray has effectively “disenfranchised some 5.7 million people who mostly oppose the federal government,” according to a recent report by political risk consultancy Pangea-Risk.

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