Ethiopia to vote amid war in Tigray, fears over fairness

Ethiopia will vote Monday in an election billed as its freest yet, but that is proceeding under the shadow of war and famine in the north, and serious doubts over fairness.

The vote is the cornerstone of a promised democratic revival in Africa’s second-most populous nation, and is supposed to represent a clean break with the repression that tarnished past elections.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who freed political prisoners and welcomed back exiles, is seeking a popular mandate after three years of great change, but also violent turmoil, under his rule.

The young leader rose to power on the back of anti-government unrest and was praised for his democratic agenda, including a commitment to hold Ethiopia’s most competitive elections yet.

The election was twice delayed — once for the coronavirus pandemic, and again to allow electoral officials more time to prepare — but Abiy is urging voters to turn out for a “historic day” on June 21.

In Addis Ababa, opposition and ruling party banners line the streets, and political movements of all shades held colourful rallies on the final day of campaigning on Wednesday, something of a rarer scene in elections past.

“Back then, you would never be able to do this,” said Ayenew Yehualaw at a noisy opposition parade in the capital’s main square, where a small number of police watched at a distance. 

– Delayed vote –

But outside the capital, the picture is far less rosy in the large and diverse Horn of Africa nation of 110 million.

For millions of Ethiopians, the election is nationwide in name only, with voting not going ahead on June 21 in close to one-fifth of the country’s 547 constituencies.

Some areas were deemed too insecure to hold a vote, plagued by armed insurgencies and ethnic violence that has worsened under Abiy, as regions push for greater freedoms.

In other cases, the electoral board was not ready, with printing errors on ballot papers, and other logistical setbacks, making a timely election across the board impossible.

A second batch of voting will take place on September 6 to accommodate many of the constituencies not taking part Monday.

But there is no election date set for war-torn Tigray, the northernmost region, where UN agencies say 350,000 people face famine conditions, and atrocities have been documented.

Tigray represents 38 seats in the national parliament, but its political fate is of less global concern than the immediate plight of its six million inhabitants.

Desperate hunger stalks the region seven months after Abiy sent troops into Tigray promising a swift campaign to oust its dissident ruling party.

Abiy was once feted in the west and across the continent, but his reputation as a reformist and peacemaker has suffered, even if his administration remains defiant in the face of international criticism. 

“The prime minister need not be a darling of the west, east, south or north,” his spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, said this week.

“It is sufficient that he stands for the people of Ethiopia and the development of the nation. And on June 21, the people of Ethiopia will decide.”

– Credibility concerns –

Even in areas where the vote is proceeding, some opposition parties are boycotting in protest over the jailing of their leaders, and other concerns over the fairness of the process. 

William Davison, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said even an incomplete vote could allow Abiy and his ruling Prosperity Party to win a comfortable majority and form a government.

“Yet in that scenario there would still be massive doubts about the credibility of the process in the eyes of many Ethiopians, as well as international observers,” he said.

For those able and willing to vote, credibility appears less of a concern. Bethel Woldemichael, a 37-year-old in Addis Ababa, said she and her friends and family would be turning out to vote.

“I hope the election is peaceful, and is not rigged, and everything goes smoothly in the country on June 21,” the retail worker said.

The polls will be closely watched by western allies such as the United States, which has voiced grave concern about the exclusion of such large numbers of voters from the process.

But closer to home, Egypt and Sudan will watch keenly too. 

Both oppose the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a colossal hydropower project on the Blue Nile, and source of national pride in Ethiopia, saying it threatens their own water supplies.

Abiy has vowed to fill the dam, angering Cairo and Khartoum.

The European Union said in May it would not send observers to the polls, citing a failure to reach an agreement with the government on basic issues like communications and the observers’ independence.

The elections will choose national and regional parliamentarians. The national MPs elect the prime minister, who is head of government, as well as the president — a largely ceremonial role. 

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