Imperfect elections do not fortify Ethiopia’s transition

By Ahmed Soliman, Chatham House, June 19, 2021

(Almendron) — Ethiopia’s current government is hoping gaining a new electoral mandate will give them the authority needed to pursue their reform agenda, which includes drafting a new constitution and potentially redrawing regional state borders.

This election represents the first true test for the ruling Prosperity Party (PP), led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, since it was formed in 2019 from the ashes of Ethiopia’s formerly dominant political coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Originally scheduled for August 2020, the elections have been postponed twice – firstly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, then recently due to logistical challenges and rising insecurity.

Even though voting is now going ahead, it is set to be delayed still further across huge areas of the country, including Tigray, and several leading opposition parties are boycotting the polls – leading many observers to fear that poorly run elections will actively worsen Ethiopia’s divides rather than heal them.

Against a challenging backdrop

This will be the sixth election since Ethiopia embarked on multipartyism some 30 years ago, with previous polls marred by irregularities and claims of electoral fraud. The federal government draws its mandate from elections in 2015, won by the EPRDF with 100 per cent of parliamentary seats, and followed by huge public discontent and large-scale protests.

This resulted in Abiy Ahmed’s ascent to prime minister in 2018, heralding sweeping reforms, a pledge to build national unity and democracy, and the launch of the PP. His efforts to make peace with Eritrea and support domestic pluralism led to Abiy receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

However, the brutal war in Tigray and ongoing armed insurgency by Tigrayan forces have resulted in evidence of mounting atrocities, human rights violations, and an increasingly desperate humanitarian picture, with 1.7 million displaced, more than five million people in need of food aid, and the United Nations (UN) and others warning of an impending famine.

Ethiopia’s international partners, including the US and EU, have imposed travel restrictions and withheld financial support – and may yet enforce further sanctions should the government not take immediate actions to stop the Tigray conflict, facilitate unhindered humanitarian access, provide accountability for human rights violations, and begin a credible political dialogue process.

But the Ethiopian government strongly defends itself against interference in sovereign affairs, stressing its partners are best served working with them on these issues not against them. Ending Eritrea’s harmful involvement in the conflict is essential for all, and a solution that in-part addresses Asmara’s security concerns will be required to hasten the withdrawal of their forces.

Elections both partial and flawed

Elections will not take place in Tigray, and neither will they happen in numerous other constituencies where security is precarious, including Benishangul-Gumuz, Western Oromia and several other regions. Polls in the Somali and Harar regions are postponed until September due to irregularities and problems with the printing of ballot papers. In all, 102 out of 547 parliamentary seats – a substantial 18 per cent of the total – are not included in the first round of voting.

The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) maintains it has been trying build institutional capacity in impossible circumstances, but there have been shortcomings with its handling of the process. Elections are now taking place at both the beginning and the end of the rainy season which could affect transport and communications infrastructure and result in further delays. Ethiopia’s military was responsible for delivering election materials but much of its capacity remains in Tigray. And there was the major challenge of hiring, training and deploying more than 250,000 staff to oversee election activities.

Rather than providing a clear result which will calm tensions, deliver much-needed stability, and re-open space for dialogue, a problematic two-stage vote held over a three-month period risks arguments over results before the election is fully concluded, increased electoral violence, and could worsen already damaged relations between the government and opposition groups.

Challenges but little change

The federal government and NEBE claim this will be Ethiopia’s most open, fair, and competitive elections ever. The polls will elect a new lower house of parliament as well as regional state councils, with 46 political parties competing and more than 37 million voters registered to vote. According to the constitution, to form a government means winning 50 per cent plus one of the national total – and as the only party with true national reach, the PP will field almost 2,800 candidates while opposition parties are limited to fewer districts concentrated in their own regional strongholds.

So PP is expected to win, but it will be challenged in certain regions. The Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party and Balderas for Genuine Democracy are expected to win seats in Addis Ababa and some other urban areas. National Movement of Amhara is expected to challenge the regional branch of PP in the Amhara region. The Afar People’s Party will be competitive in Afar, and the Ogaden Nation Liberation Front is expected to contest the Somali region in September.

But in Oromia – the biggest regional constituency – all the major opposition parties have boycotted the election, and senior leaders from the Oromo Federalist Congress and the Oromo Liberation Front are detained and face lengthy court proceedings, meaning PP has practically no opposition for Oromia’s 178 parliamentary seats. With many of the region’s 15 million registered voters unable to support their preferred party, the real question seems not whether the PP will win but by what margin – and how bad the resulting discontent will get.

Political consensus needed

The hope is a strong electoral mandate for Prime Minister Abiy provides the government with the confidence it needs to accelerate reforms, including inter-communal reconciliation, and deliver the renewed dialogue it has promised. To move forward peacefully, Ethiopia must find a political settlement to accommodate competing ideological perspectives and build a consensual vision for how the country should be governed based on mutual interests.

But given the leadership’s track-record of avoiding negotiation with key opposition figures, there seems limited prospect of all opposition parties being included in dialogue, especially those that are imprisoned or that have been designated as terrorist groups, including Oromo and Tigrayan leaders. A victory for the government is unlikely to heal the country’s widening rifts, nor resolve the structural issues and ideological competition that have surfaced during Abiy’s leadership.

Beyond these elections, insecurity and increasing ethnic and regional polarization still threaten the political and economic reform agenda and damage the prospects of a sustainable roadmap for the institutionalization of democratic reforms. With mounting internal and external burdens on the government, it is difficult to see how this election can mend Ethiopia’s deep divisions, unify its communities, and appease its international partners. Abiy Ahmed urgently needs to renew his commitment to ending conflict and return to genuine dialogue.

Ahmed Soliman, Research Fellow, Africa Programme.

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