Ethiopia election: Will delayed polls mirror those of the past?

Gov’t says June 21 vote will be a break away from previous polls, but critics decry detention of opposition leaders and say process is not free and fair.

Abiy Ahmed was appointed prime minister of Ethiopia in April 2018 [File: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]
By Zecharias Zelalem, 8 Jun 2021

(Aljazeera) — 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.”

Sixth election

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.

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