Political parties taking part next week in Ethiopia’s twice-delayed polls have wrapped up their election campaigns, with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed predicting that the country will successfully hold a peaceful vote.
The June 21 election will take place at a time of widespread ethnic unrest and economic challenges, as well as a months-long conflict in the northern Tigray region where the United Nations warns that at least 350,000 people face famine. Opposition parties in other key regions have said they will boycott the polls, the sixth since the overthrow of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s communist government in 1991.
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“The whole world is saying we will fight but we will show them differently,” Abiy said on Wednesday during his first and final rally at a packed stadium in the southern town of Jimma.
“The forces that saved Ethiopia from collapsing will turn the Horn of Africa into Africa’s power hub,” he added, wearing sunglasses and a tuxedo fashioned from traditional local cloth.
“I say to all Ethiopians [engaged] in the struggle to ensure a peaceful, democratic and prosperous Ethiopia: as long as Ethiopians stand together in one spirit and one heart, there is no force on earth that can stop us,” he said, speaking in a mixture of his native tongue – Afan Oromo, the language of the region – and the national Amharic language.
Abiy’s Prosperity Party is fielding the most candidates for national parliamentary races and is the firm favourite to win, with a broad reach unmatched by other political parties.
For the 44-year-old, the polls on Monday is an opportunity to win a popular mandate after rising to power in 2018 following years of anti-government protests.
After his appointment, Abiy promised to overhaul government and enact democratic reforms, with the end goal being free and fair elections – a historical first – by 2020.
But in March last year, citing the risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s electoral body announced that it would postpone the poll by a year. The decision provoked the ire of much of the country’s political opposition, which accused the governing party of using the pandemic as an excuse to illegally extend its tenure in power, an allegation denied by the government.
A second weeks-long postponement was announced last month over logistical hitches, including training electoral staff and printing and distributing ballot papers.
Despite being billed as a nationwide poll, the vote on Monday will not be held in nearly one-fifth of the country’s 547 constituencies, including all 38 seats in Tigray and 64 others across the country of some 110 million people. The majority of the delayed votes are scheduled for September 6 but no date has been set yet for Tigray, where more than five million people are in need of emergency food assistance.
Abiy ordered a ground and air military operation in Tigray in early November 2020 after accusing the region’s then-governing party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), of orchestrating attacks on federal army camps, an allegation rejected by TPLF officials.
Abiy, whose forces are backed by troops from Eritrea and fighters from Ethiopia’s Amhara region, declared victory in late November when the army entered the regional capital, Mekelle. Fighting, however, is still ongoing and reports of massacres, rape and widespread hunger keep emerging.
The United States, historically an ally of Ethiopia but an increasingly vocal critic as the Tigray conflict drags on, has expressed alarm at the conditions under which the vote will occur.
The detention of prominent opposition leaders and ethnic conflict roiling swathes of the country pose “obstacles to a free and fair electoral process and whether Ethiopians would perceive them as credible”, State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week.
“The exclusion of large segments of the electorate from this contest due to security issues and internal displacement is particularly troubling,” he added.
The European Union said in May it would not send observers to the polls, citing a failure to reach an agreement with the government on basic issues like communications and the observers’ independence.
The Oromo Federalist Congress and the Oromo Liberation Front – two of the most prominent parties in Oromia, the nation’s most populous region – withdrew from the race, complaining their candidates have been arrested and their offices vandalised.
But supporters of opposition parties participating in the upcoming polls on Wednesday took to the streets of the capital, Addis Ababa, cramming into town squares and blocking traffic with noisy parades and singing and dancing.
The Balderas party, whose leader is behind bars, marched in the city centre in a raucous procession led by men on horseback trailed by a convoy of ear-splitting loudspeakers.
“We are rallying for the people, even if we don’t believe this vote will be fully free or fair,” said Zebiba Ibrahim, a 25-year-old opposition party candidate.
“We are doing the best we can, so our voice can be heard.”
In Meskel Square, in the heart of the capital, another opposition party, Ezema, gathered supporters wrapped in Ethiopian flags and chanting slogans for a final rally.
“In previous elections, you couldn’t do rallies, you couldn’t do anything,” said Temesgen Getahun, a 37-year-old hotel worker watching the nearby festivities.
“If you took to the streets you were jailed so … considering those elections, this one is fine.”