Ethiopia’s election is less than two weeks away but various insecurity and logistical woes, as well as questions over representation, threaten to overshadow the country’s already twice-delayed national polls.
In a televised statement in April, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised Ethiopians they would be able to shape the country’s destiny with their vote. However, as bloodshed in the northern Tigray region and instability elsewhere keep taking a toll on civilians, and as candidates slated to provide Abiy with the stiffest electoral challenge remain behind bars, enthusiasm among some Ethiopians continues to wane.
“I don’t have much hope in the process, I just want peace,” said Haimanot Tsegaye, a graduate student in the capital, Addis Ababa.
“These days, anything can trigger violence.”
The June 21 polls for the 547 seats in Ethiopia’s House of Representatives will be the sixth since the overthrow of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s communist government in 1991. But they will also be the first not featuring the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) four-party alliance, which was declared victor in the previous five contests, including the last one in 2015 when it secured all seats in a process marred by allegations of voter intimidation.
Under its nearly 30-year rule, the EPRDF-led government made use of mass arrests and state violence to clamp down on its critics. In 2005, a police crackdown on unarmed protesters who took to the streets to decry election irregularities left nearly 200 demonstrators dead.
Mounting grievances over growing authoritarianism fuelled popular uprisings which eventually paved the way for Abiy to ascend to power three years ago. At the time just 41 years old and Africa’s youngest leader, Abiy promised to overhaul government and enact democratic reforms, with the end goal being free and fair elections – a historical first – by 2020.
Upon taking power in 2018, Abiy dismissed a host of EPRDF officials that saw the end of the coalition’s dominance by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The following year, he dissolved the EPRDF coalition as a whole, inviting member parties to merge into what became the unified Prosperity Party (PP). The Tigrayan elites, however, baulked at the idea of merging into PP, and retreated to Tigray where the TPLF still ruled the regional government until the breakout of war in November 2020.
PP party officials have argued that the EPRDF’s dissolution will reduce societal fragmentation and bolster democracy in Africa’s second-most populous country, a mosaic of more than 80 ethnic groups.
“The government, since 2018, has undertaken a range of measures to expand democratisation by widening the political space and creating a conducive environment for democratic practice,” said Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Qatar Samia Zekaria. “It has repeatedly reiterated its steady vow to ensure free elections with a robust conviction that this is the only legitimate pathway to a peaceful transition of power.”
Ethiopia under Abiy
As part of the sweeping changes, political parties long outlawed during the EPRDF era were decriminalised. Prominent opposition figures were freed from jail or invited to return from exile and take part in the country’s fledgeling democratic process without fear of persecution.
At the same time, the appointment of Birtukan Mideksa as the National Election Board’s (NEB) chairperson further fuelled optimism. The selection of Birtukan – a celebrated former political opposition leader, who spent almost 40 months behind bars during two prison stints in the aftermath of the 2005 controversial elections – was feted by observers as a sign that the reform drive was genuine.
In March 2020, citing the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the NEB announced that it would postpone that year’s elections 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.
In June 2020, the Addis Ababa-based Balderas for Genuine Democracy opposition party announced that if elections were not held, it would call for protests by October 2020, when Abiy’s initial mandate was scheduled to expire.
But merely weeks after that announcement, the party’s leader, Eskinder Nega, who was among the political prisoners ordered released in 2018, was rearrested and accused of stirring up the violence that followed the June 29 murder of popular musician and activist Hachalu Hundessa.
A number of other prominent election candidates and Abiy critics, including the hugely influential Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) party duo of Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba, were also netted in what ended up being a mass roundup of government critics.
The polls’ second postponement last month over logistical issues including training electoral staff and printing and distributing ballot papers found Eskinder, Jawar and Bekele still behind bars, all charged with terror-related offences.
“No, these elections won’t be anywhere near free and fair if parties have their leaders in prison,” said Merera Gudina, OFC chairman. “These elections lack legitimacy. Ruling party members are now requiring people to show their voter registration documents, to obtain oil, sugar and other amenities. They are forcing people to register, to boost what is going to be a low voter turnout due to a lack of interest.”
Merera’s party has said it would boycott the elections, citing an inability to compete while key leaders and party members remain in detention. The OFC enjoys considerable popularity among the country’s ethnic Oromo population, who form about a third of the country’s 110 million people and spearheaded the protests which ultimately led to Abiy’s appointment as prime minister.
The only other party that could compete with the OFC for influence among the Oromo is the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a former fighting group that gave up a decades-long armed struggle to join party politics at Abiy’s invitation in 2018. OLF members have also been subjected to arrests.
“Most Oromo youths have lost hope in the process. Many wouldn’t even be able to tell you when the date of the election is,” said Yeroon Tolasaa, a college lecturer in Addis Ababa. “The Oromo aren’t represented in the election.”
Meanwhile, voting will not take place in Tigray, where a seven-month-long conflict between federal forces and the region’s former rulers has led to the decimation of its institutions and infrastructure, as well as its partial takeover by troops from neighbouring Eritrea who joined the conflict in support of Addis Ababa.
Tigray had carried out its own rogue polls last year, in defiance of the federal government’s orders to postpone them. The TPLF, which was declared the winner of those polls, has since been designated a “terrorist” group by the federal government.
Who is running?
The absence of formidable opposition from two key regions, home to the country’s big bastions of political opposition, has left a noticeable lack of diversity among the field of remaining election hopefuls and Prosperity Party rivals.
One of the political forces competing in the upcoming polls is the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party (better known by its Amharic acronym, Ezema), which is led by Berhanu Nega, who ran for the mayorship of Addis Ababa during the controversial 2005 elections. The Enat party, established just about a year ago, will be fielding more than 500 candidates.
Among the top 10 opposition parties by the number of candidates, eight have their support bases in Addis Ababa. Most have little reach outside of the Ethiopian capital.
“These elections won’t be competitive,” said Goitom Gebreleul, a political analyst and researcher of Horn of African affairs. “But perhaps most damaging is the fact that only one major social constituency is represented in the polls. This serves to devalue ideals such as democracy and human rights and will have a detrimental impact on society.”
Over the course of the past month, several televised election debates touching on a host of topics have been held. The near entirety of the opposition parties that have participated in the debates, with the exception of the National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) party, are based out of Addis Ababa.
The dearth of diversity might have been best exhibited by two debate sessions held in Ethiopia’s Afaan Oromo language in April. Arranged for Oromo audiences, the debates featured no political parties established in the Oromia region.
Meanwhile, the war in Tigray has been omitted altogether from discussion during the election debates despite being among the most pressing issues in the country as reports of mounting atrocities and growing hunger, as well as allegations of weaponised rape and ethnic cleansing, have prompted warnings of a looming humanitarian disaster. An estimated 90 percent of Tigray’s residents, or 5.2 million people, are in need of emergency food assistance.
Last month, the US slapped Ethiopian officials with sanctions for failing to take serious steps to end the war that has killed thousands of people, if not more, and displaced nearly two million. Also in May, the European Union cancelled plans to send election observers to Ethiopia, ostensibly due to communications issues. It came on the heels of a call by five US senators to postpone the polls that they described as “not currently on track to meet international standards for freedom, fairness, and transparency”.
‘Significant political and legal reforms’
Ethiopia’s government, however, insists that it has ensured inclusivity and that this year’s election will be a significant break away from past practices.
“Unlike our history marred by undemocratic political culture whereby rulers came to power and forced out by the barrel of the gun, the upcoming June elections are administered following significant political and legal reforms,” Samia, the ambassador, said.
Meanwhile, an Ethiopian court recently ordered the NEB to allow jailed candidates from the Balderas for Genuine Democracy party – including leader Eskinder – to take part in the election.
The body, citing logistics and time constraints, initially stated that it would not be able to honour the court order, but it has since stated that an exception would be made for the Balderas party, meaning it would be allowed to participate in the elections with its leaders in prison.
With much of Ethiopia’s political opposition out of the race, some observers fear the polls could heighten resentment towards the government.
“Flawed elections store up popular resentment. We know this in Ethiopia because the rigging of elections under the last regime is one of the grievances now being used to denounce the TPLF,” said Nic Cheeseman, author and democracy professor at the University of Birmingham.
“If Abiy proceeds with elections that are also flawed, it will create similar anger and frustration, repeating the cycle.”