Ethiopia’s parliament has approved allowing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to stay in office beyond his mandate after elections planned for August were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The vote on Wednesday – 114 in favour, four against and one abstention – came two days after a leading opposition politician resigned as speaker in an apparent protest against the decision to delay the election.
“The House of Federation has approved a decision to extend the term of all assemblies until international health institutions have deemed the threat from coronavirus to be over,” the Ethiopian News Agency reported on Wednesday, referring to the upper house of parliament.
Lawmakers did not specify when the new elections would happen, however, their vote was an endorsement of recommendations by the Council of Constitutional Inquiry, an advisory body that had held public meetings to decide a way forward after the delay.
The body recommended for the “elections to be held nine to 12 months after the coronavirus is deemed not to be a public health concern”.
Ethiopia’s election board announced in March that it would be impossible to organise the vote on time because of the pandemic, in which 2,506 infections have been confirmed in the country with 35 deaths.
The circumstances meant that the election could not happen before legislators’ terms end in October.
The Ethiopian constitution does not clearly address the path forward in the unusual situation.
Some opposition leaders have called for a caretaker or transitional government to guide the country to elections, a suggestion Abiy dismissed as unworkable during a question-and-answer session on Monday with legislators.
The move by the upper house also drew a rebuke from opposition leaders who have accused Abiy of using the pandemic to artificially extend his time in office, and analysts warned of possible protests and boycotts.
Other opposition politicians have demanded a more prominent role in resolving the impasse, arguing that consulting parliament is insufficient because most lawmakers support the governing party.
In anticipation of the extension, oppositions had been speaking out it in recent weeks.
On Monday, House of Federation speaker Keria Ibrahim, a top official of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), resigned from her position, saying she was “not willing to work with a group that violates the constitution and exercises dictatorship”. TPLF, a member of the ruling coalition, opposed the decision taken in March to delay the elections due to the pandemic.
TPLF has threatened to hold its own elections in the Tigray region, home to one of Ethiopia’s most influential ethnic groups.
Abiy took power in Africa’s second-most populous country in 2018 and has since rolled out a series of reforms allowing greater freedoms in what had long been one of the continent’s most repressive states. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
But the changes have made it possible for long-held grievances against decades of harsh rule to resurface, and emboldened regional power-brokers such as the TPLF to seek more power for their ethnic groups.
On Wednesday night, two major opposition parties with power bases in Abiy’s home Oromia region issued a joint statement rejecting Wednesday’s vote as “an illegal and illegitimate act”.
The parties, the Oromo Federalist Congress and the Oromo Liberation Front, also warned that it “endangers the peace and stability of the country”.
“We would like to express our concern that large-scale mass uprisings which could transform into violence may arise, and this will not only take us back to square one, it will also be difficult to contain for a government already dealing with multiple socioeconomic and public health challenges,” the parties said.