By Giulia Paravicini
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopia's northern Tigray region held elections on Wednesday in a show of defiance against Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who called the regional vote illegal but said the government would not respond with force.
"Polls are now closed and the vote happened without violence or complaints. People were jubilant and peaceful. Turnout was over 97%," said Muluwork Kidanemariam, head of the regional electoral commission. Results will be announced by Sept. 13.
Ethiopia had been due to hold national and regional elections on Aug. 29 but postponed them indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic. Tigray opposition politicians say this was a move by Abiy to prolong his rule, and went ahead with the vote, even after senior lawmakers ruled it unconstitutional.
The confrontation with Tigray is the latest headache for Abiy, who is struggling to hold together a fractious federation that stitches Ethiopia's 80 plus ethnic groups.
After decades of repression, Abiy ushered in democratic reforms that helped win him the Nobel Prize. But the new freedoms also fuelled long-suppressed demands for more regional autonomy, rights and resources.
In the past three years, Ethiopia has faced multiple bouts of outbreaks of large-scale ethnic violence, what the government described as an attempt at a regional coup led by rogue security forces, and increasingly insistent demands from smaller ethnic groups for their own regions.
Abiy has not specified how he will respond to Tigray's polls, although he has ruled out using force. On Wednesday, he likened the election to the construction of shanties by squatters.
"Those who construct a shanty are illegal dwellers as they don't have land deeds, and they don't sleep with their eyes shut," he told the state broadcaster.
Abiy is not the only one facing new challengers. The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which for many years was the only party in the region and is expected to gain a majority, is facing pressure from more zealous ethnic nationalists who have formed a new party that is openly pushing independence from Ethiopia.
Tigrayans dominated Ethiopian politics since guerrilla fighters ousted a Marxist dictator in 1991, but their influence has waned under Abiy and last year the TPLF quit his ruling coalition.
"Everybody is willing to vote here... we want to be independent, free and have a nation for all Tigrayans," said Welday Asgedom, a tourism worker, as he headed to the polling station.
Tigray's population makes up 5% of Ethiopia's 109 million people, but its history in politics means it is wealthier and more influential than many other, larger regions.
(Additional reporting by Dawit Endeshaw; Editing by George Obulutsa, Raissa Kasolowsky and Hugh Lawson)