Ethiopians set to vote in tight polls amid conflict and apathy

Ethiopians set to vote in tight polls amid conflict and apathy

After careful consideration, Shimelis Yohannes * has decided to register to vote in Ethiopia’s delayed general elections due on Monday.
“I took a voting card because it’s better than not participating in the elections,” said the official in the capital, Addis Ababa. But, he quickly adds, there is no illusion about a vote that has been overshadowed by conflict in the northern Tigray region, instability elsewhere and widespread apathy.

“I don’t think my vote will change anything or decide Ethiopia’s future direction, but at least I can tell myself that I did my best,” says Yohannes, who will be supporting a party in Ethiopia. ‘opposition.

While one of 38 million people who have registered to vote in national and regional parliamentary polls, Bruk Gemechu *, who lives in the town of Shashemene, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) southeast of ‘Addis Ababa, says he will abstain.

Private sector professional says his Oromia region, Ethiopia’s largest, lacks credible opposition parties to compete with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party (PP) after the two parties Most popular Oromo politicians – the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) – decided to boycott the polls. Parties allege the elections lack legitimacy, citing an inability to compete as high-level party leaders and members are behind bars and other members are subjected to physical abuse.

“The local PP executives had forced vulnerable sections of society to withdraw voter cards and are now threatening them with sanctions if they vote for the few candidates from other opposition parties,” Gemechu said.

National Election Commission staff tell people how to vote in the upcoming elections [Amanuel Sileshi/AFP]

Young people from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromos, who make up about 35 percent of the country’s roughly 110 million people, have been at the forefront of two and a half years of anti-government protests that brought Abiy to the power in April 2018.

However, Abiy has since fallen out with many leaders of the Oromo youth movement. Several prominent OFC members, including Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba, remain behind bars for terrorism in connection with the unrest following the murder last year of famous Oromo musician and activist, Hachalu Hundessa.

The PP, however, insists that the elections will be free and fair – a historic first in Ethiopia. Monday’s elections will be the sixth since the overthrow of the communist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. The previous five elections – all won by the quadripartite alliance of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front – now dissolved – have been marred by accusations of fraud and irregularities.

“The ruling party is extremely ready to exercise democracy… and the public is very enthusiastic,” says Bikila Wolde of the PP. “While these opportunities exist, the challenges are also very clear, as Ethiopia has a long history of an extremely polarized political system, known for its dictatorial regimes. Modern and civilized political exercises are rare in this country.

As the ruling party presents the vote – initially slated for 2020 but first postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, then due to logistical challenges – as an opportunity to lower the temperature of the polarized political environment, some fear that it does not have the opposite effect.

An analyst from Addis Ababa, who declined to be named due to the charged political atmosphere, said polls would take place amid rising COVID-19 cases and locust outbreaks, as well as “a tattered and conflicted economy in the Tigray region which has left the region entirely dependent on humanitarian aid”.

The seven-month war in Tigray is estimated to have killed thousands, if not more, and displaced some two million, with the United Nations warning this week that 350,000 people are suffering from starvation.

“The Ethiopian army which was supposed to be responsible for transporting electoral materials is involved in the Tigray conflict as well as in the fight against the latent insurgencies in various parts of the regional states of Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz,” he said. ‘analyst. “I consider it inconceivable that the PP is gaining electoral legitimacy thanks to the polls at this time. “

Recognizing the security and logistical challenges facing various parts of Ethiopia, the National Electoral Council of Ethiopia (NEBE) revealed earlier this month that the vote would not take place in nearly a fifth of the 547 constituencies Ethiopian election.

NEBE has said voting in constituencies not participating next week will take place on September 6, but Tigray – with 38 seats – is indefinitely ruled out for now.

“I only see one riding represented in the polls; it’s the urban elites and the Amhara region, ”the analyst said.

While the PP is the favorite to win the majority of seats, it is expected to face a serious electoral challenge in Addis Ababa and the Amhara region, Ethiopia’s second most populous.

Already, several opposition figures have publicly revealed that their acceptance of the results is conditional on the fairness of the vote count.

In 2005, a police crackdown on unarmed demonstrators who took to the streets of Addis Ababa to denounce electoral irregularities left nearly 200 dead, as well as six police officers.

Yohannes and the analyst shared their concerns about potential post-election violence in the two regions considered to be the most electorally competitive, but Abiy at his last campaign rally on Wednesday predicted the polls would be peaceful.

“The whole world says we will fight but we will show them differently,” Abiy told his supporters in Jimma town. “I say to all Ethiopians [engaged] in the fight to ensure a peaceful, democratic and prosperous Ethiopia, ”added the prime minister, who earlier in June accused“ traitors ”and“ foreigners ”of working to undermine Ethiopia.

Addis Ababa police officers in riot gear take part in parade to display their new uniforms [Baz Ratner/Reuters]

On Saturday, less than 48 hours before the polling stations opened, police officers from central Addis Ababa took part in a parade attended by senior government officials believed to be wearing the new police uniforms.

For the analyst, even if fears of post-election violence do not materialize, the near-term future of post-election Ethiopia will not be rosy.

“I do not see the election changing nor the deterioration of the security environment nor the increasing pressure from parts of the international community,” the analyst said.

“I see the military standoff in Tigray between the rebels and the Ethiopian army – supported by Eritrean forces and neighboring Amhara region – continuing for the time being as the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate, and Frustrated Oromo youth continue to join the banned Oromo Liberation Army) rebel movement, ”the analyst added.

“The fragmented sanctions of Western countries (linked to the Tigray War) are likely to be stepped up, with the effects expected to affect the lower economic class of society first before it reaches senior government officials. “

* Name changed to protect their identity


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