After months of setbacks – including being twice delayed – Ethiopia has had its election.
Originally scheduled for August 2020, it was postponed until June 5 due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was delayed again to enable more time to tackle voter registration problems and other electoral challenges across African’s second-most populous country, eventually taking place on June 21.
On Saturday, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) announced that the party of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had won a landslide victory in his first electoral contest.
Hailing what he described as an “historic” election, Abiy said his Prosperity Party (PP) was “happy that it has been chosen by the will of the people to administer the country”.
The election’s belated completion is undoubtedly a significant moment, even as the polls were overshadowed by an opposition boycott, the conflict in the northern Tigray region and instability elsewhere. The NEBE channelled a lot of money and effort to overcome myriad obstacles and hold an election during a pandemic.
“I think that NEBE has done a reasonable job in difficult circumstances and may have created the kind of institution and precedents that Ethiopia needs,” said Terrence Lyons at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.
But, at the same time, observers say, there is no escaping how numerous restrictions that characterised the election, and that were unrelated to COVID-19, speak to far larger fault lines running throughout Ethiopia. It means Abiy, who swept to power in 2018 on the back of years of anti-government protests, has little reason to savour the victory.
At stake, some say, remains not only Ethiopia’s democratic revival and break from its authoritarian past, but potentially the country’s survival as a nation state.
“Far from supplying legitimacy to the government and stability to the country, the election — boycotted by opposition parties and undertaken amid a war — is likely to pull Ethiopia further apart, to calamitous effect,” Tsedale Lemma, the founder of Addis Standard, an independent monthly magazine in Ethiopia, wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times on the election day.
One of the most glaring problems with the election was it did not include Tigray, which represents 38 seats in the national parliament of 547 constituencies. Home to six million people, the region has been mired in eight months of catastrophic conflict pitting the federal government and its Eritrean allies against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Tigray’s former governing party which also used to dominate national politics until Abiy took office.
Many other Ethiopians also did not participate in the election due to worsening security in the Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz and Amhara regions, from which 64 constituencies have to wait until the second round of voting due on September 6, while there has been no date set for polls in Tigray, whose capital, Mekelle, was recently recaptured by forces loyal to TPLF. Ethiopia’s long-term ally, the United States, which has already spoken out over Tigray, has warned the exclusion of so many voters risks undermining confidence in the process.
In addition to what some of Abiy’s critics say is yet another failure to deliver free and fair elections that fundamentally undermines the government’s legitimacy, the biggest issue at the heart of Ethiopia’s ongoing ructions remains the dispute over the nature of the Ethiopian state, which is metastasising in the form of the Tigray conflict that remains Abiy’s most immediate and greatest challenge, even as his government announced a unilateral ceasefire until September.
It all hinges on the balance of power between the federal centre and the regions, and the role of ethnolinguistic identity groups in the federal system.
“The big unknown going forward is whether Abiy’s victory encourages him to consolidate power and deploy the kinds of authoritarian means he has been using — arresting opposition, human rights violations, refusing negotiations with those he perceives to be his enemies — or will it allow him to relax, recognise that his mandate is now secure, and to take the opportunity to reach out and begin a process that is more inclusive and recognises that there are constituencies that have real grievances and oppose him,” says Lyons, noting that many believe Abiy would lean towards the first option.
Among the proponents of this more pessimistic view are Matt Bryden, director of Sahan, a research think-tank focused on the Horn of Africa. He says the most likely scenario is Abiy “will claim that the election was Ethiopia’s best and that he now has an even stronger mandate to pursue his agenda”, including the war in Tigray, and “reshaping Ethiopia as a more centralised autocracy”.
Salvaging Ethiopia’s democratic transition hinges on Abiy instigating a national dialogue to reform the current federal system that is no longer fit for purpose, argues Tewodrose Tirfe, chair of the Amhara Association of America, a US-based advocacy group for the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group.
“The ethnic federalism system is hardly a nation-building project and has evidently become a system that is encouraging separatism,” Tewodrose says.
“If Ethiopia does not reform the ethnic apartheid system that leaves millions of Ethiopians stateless if they live outside of their ‘ethnic homeland’, Ethiopia will not be able to realise true democracy and take advantage of its enormous natural potential and population size.”
But others, such as Crisis Group’s Ethiopia specialist William Davison, argue that while the federal design contains defects, it is important to remember the federal system was created in 1994 in response to sustained armed resistance from various liberation fronts to homogenising tendencies — of the sort that Abiy is once again displaying.
At the end of 2019, Abiy dissolved the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ruling alliance that had dominated Ethiopia politics since 1991, merging the ethnically based regional parties — apart from the TPLF that refused to join—into a single, national entity: the PP.
Since then, critics say Abiy and his new party appear just as disinclined as the EPRDF towards ruling in a genuinely democratic manner. Davison notes that some among the Oromo — Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group — are increasingly incensed by Abiy’s governance. The two main Oromo opposition parties boycotted the election amid increasing unrest in Oromia.
“The current violent blowback indicates that Abiy and his allies cannot achieve peace and prosperity for all Ethiopians by imposing their vision and party on Ethiopia using the coercive power of the state,” says Davison, noting Ethiopia’s internal strife leaves the country weaker and more fragile than it has been for decades.
This is not lost on the likes of Sudan and Egypt that have long-running disagreements with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project as well as, in Sudan’s case, a territorial border dispute.
It is also not lost on Eritrea and its longtime ruler Isaias Afwerki to Tigray’s north. All the while, on the international stage Ethiopia is likely to find itself increasingly isolated and at odds with its supporters, says Bryden.
The precarious situation for Ethiopia and the wider region is made all the worse, Davison says, by the “extreme toxicity” between the main political actors involved, polarised perspectives and “unwillingness to compromise”.
The election does nothing to change these dynamics. To avoid a continuation along the current violent trajectory requires, Davison says, Abiy should accept the dire need to bring everyone around the table — an option that so far he has shown no sign of being willing to consider — to hash out a compromise. It would be a difficult discussion, Davison says, but the alternative for Ethiopia is “far, far worse”, with others like Bryden and Lyons agreeing there is a real risk of Ethiopia fragmenting further and even sliding towards state failure.
“I am always reluctant to predict the end of Ethiopia, since it looked pretty bad in early 2018 as well, and the state often manages to muddle through crisis after crisis,” Lyons says. “But it does not look good.”