Some 37 million of Ethiopia’s roughly 110 million people registered to vote on Monday, although many will have to wait until September to vote due to logistical, legal and security concerns. Here are five things to know about the crucial polls in Africa’s second most populous country.
Abiy seeks a warrant
In the areas where the elections will take place, voters will choose national and regional parliamentarians. National deputies are responsible for electing the prime minister, who is the head of government, as well as the president – a largely ceremonial role.
The polls will mark the first test of voter support for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, 44, Africa’s youngest leader and Ethiopia’s first in the Oromia region.
Abiy’s appointment as prime minister in 2018 – after years of anti-government protests forced his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, to step down – was initially greeted by many with an explosion of optimism both at home and abroad. ‘foreign.
Within months at the head of the ruling coalition in Ethiopia, Abiy freed tens of thousands of political prisoners and allowed the return of opposition groups in exile. He also announced economic reforms, including the opening of parts of the tightly controlled Ethiopian markets and the creation of a stock exchange.
In 2019, Abiy received the Nobel Peace Prize in part for his reform effort and for making peace with neighboring Eritrea by ending a long border standoff.
“We will guarantee the unity of Ethiopia,” Abiy said ahead of his last campaign rally on Wednesday, reiterating his promise of free and fair elections after the votes passed – all won by the quadripartite alliance of the Revolutionary Democratic Front of the Ethiopian People (EPRDF) – have been marred by accusations of fraud and irregularities. In 2015, the EPRDF and its allies won all parliamentary seats in a process marred by allegations of voter intimidation.
More than a year after coming to power, Abiy dissolved the EPRDF coalition as a whole and formed the Prosperity Party (PP) with its political allies.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF), which dominated the ruling coalition for nearly 30 years before Abiy came to power, refused to follow the other three ethnic parties of the EPRDF into the PP. He accused the prime minister of centralizing power to the detriment of ethnic regions of Ethiopia, which he denies. PP officials said the dissolution of the EPRDF would reduce the fragmentation of society and strengthen democracy, with the much-anticipated elections scheduled for August 2020.
But in March of last year, Abiy postponed the election for 10 months citing the COVID-19 pandemic. The elections were postponed a second time to June 21 due to logistical issues, including delays in voter registration and a lack of election officials.
The initial postponement angered much of the country’s political opposition, who accused the ruling party of using the pandemic as an excuse to illegally extend its term, a claim denied by the government.
The TPLF held elections – and won a landslide – in the northern Tigray region anyway, putting it on a collision course with the federal government.
On November 4, after months of tension, Abiy ordered federal forces to enter Tigray, accusing the TPLF of launching an attack to take control of the Ethiopian army’s northern command. Regional leaders at the time denied the allegation, accusing the federal government and their longtime enemy Eritrea, whose troops supported Ethiopian soldiers in the fighting, of launching a “coordinated attack” against it. .
Abiy vowed a swift military campaign to detain and disarm TPLF leaders and militias. Fighting, however, continues and reports of massacres, rapes and widespread famine continue to emerge.
The conflict is estimated to have killed thousands of people and displaced more than two million. Aid agencies last week warned that 350,000 people in Tigray were on the brink of famine, a crisis that several diplomats called “man-made” amid allegations of forced starvation. The Ethiopian government rejected the figure and said food aid reached 5.2 million in the region of six million people.
The fighting means there will be no voting in Tigray’s 38 constituencies, where military personnel who typically play a key role in transporting electoral materials are busy with the conflict.
Overall, voting was delayed in 110 of the 547 constituencies. Some areas have been deemed too insecure to hold a vote, plagued by armed campaigns and ethnic violence that has escalated under Abiy, as areas push for more freedoms.
In other cases, the electoral board was not ready, with printing errors on ballots and other logistical setbacks making a timely election at all levels impossible.
A second phase of voting will take place on September 6 to accommodate many constituencies not participating on Monday – but not in Tigray, where no date has been set.
Boycott of the opposition
The PP leads a group of nearly 50 parties vying for parliamentary seats. It registered 2,432 candidates for election, while the second largest party, Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (ECSJ), fielded 1,385 candidates.
However, some prominent opposition parties have said they will boycott the elections to protest the imprisonment of their leaders and other concerns about the fairness of the process.
Among them are the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC).
Several prominent OFC members remain behind bars after a wave of unrest sparked last year by the murder of a popular Oromo musician, and the OLF leader is under house arrest. The leader of the Balderas Party for True Democracy, Eskinder Nega, has also been arrested and is running for office from prison.
Five opposition parties released a joint statement on Sunday claiming that the campaign outside the capital, Addis Ababa, “has been marred by serious problems, including killings, attempted murders and beatings of candidates.” .
Yet some choose to stay in the race, hoping that their participation will help the country in its quest for democratization.
“We are optimistic, saying it internally, that the ruling party is getting its money’s worth,” Nathaniel Felega of Ethiopia’s Citizens for Social Justice party told Al Jazeera. “We will continue to do this until the end of the campaigns. And we hope that the next legislature will not be as boring as the previous ones.
Despite Abiy’s promises, the international community is increasingly concerned about the fairness of the elections.
The European Union has said it will not observe the vote after its requests to import communications equipment are denied.
In response, Ethiopia said external observers “are neither essential nor necessary to certify the credibility of an election,” although it has since hosted observers deployed by the African Union.
Last week, the US State Department said it was “gravely concerned about the environment in which these upcoming elections are to be held,” citing “the detention of opposition politicians, the harassment of independent media, the partisan activities of local and regional governments; and the numerous inter-ethnic and inter-community conflicts across Ethiopia ”.
Earlier this month, Abiy accused “traitors” and “foreigners” of working to undermine Ethiopia, while this week his spokesman Billene Seyoum described the elections as a chance for citizens “of” d ‘exercise their democratic rights’ and accused the international media of mounting a ‘character assassination of the Prime Minister’.