Counting under way in 'historic' Ethiopia election

Vote counting was under way Tuesday following elections in Ethiopia that went ahead without polling in the war-torn northern Tigray region and other restive parts of Africa’s second-most populous nation.

Some 38 million people were registered to vote but many did not cast a ballot on Monday, with elections postponed or cancelled in a fifth of national constituencies because of war, insecurity and logistical problems.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed nonetheless declared Monday “a historic day for Ethiopia”.

“All sections of society have gone out to cast their voice in our nation’s first free and fair election,” the 44-year-old leader posted on Twitter, alongside images of crowds waiting to vote.

“Pictures are a thousand words and they show the earnestness, commitment to peace and the democratic process, by our people.”

Results are not expected for several days as ballots are counted in the vast nation of 110 million.

Abiy was facing voters for the first time since coming to power in 2018, and his ruling party is expected to secure a comfortable majority.

Voting stretched into Monday evening, with the nearly 50,000 polling stations staying open an extra three hours to accommodate long queues after delays in delivering ballot papers.

“Voter turnout was very high, both in urban centres and rural areas,” National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) spokeswoman Solyana Shimeles told reporters on Tuesday, without offering a figure.

The board said the vote was mostly peaceful but it reported “high levels of intimidation” of opposition party members in some regions.

A coalition of civil society election monitors reported 118 incidents, including 93 they had verified.

Preliminary results were being posted outside polling stations in Addis Ababa, drawing crowds to inspect the outcome.

“I voted at this polling station. Things were orderly, but there were long queues and the pace was slow. Apart from that, all went well,” said Sisay Feleke, a 54-year-old voter.

In Bahir Dar, the capital of the northwestern Amhara region neighbouring Tigray, daily life resumed on Tuesday, with businesses open and traffic returning to the streets.

Counting had finished in a number of polling stations in Bahir Dar, with results displayed clearly for the public.

“We are practising democracy and every party, whoever wins… should accept the result,” said Eshete Alemnew, a 34-year-old tradesman. 

Once votes are counted, national MPs will elect the prime minister as well as the president, a largely ceremonial role.

Abiy called on all parties to remain calm and committed to peace until results are announced.

– Imperfect polls – 

The election was twice delayed — once because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hammered Ethiopia’s economy, and again to allow more time to organise the ballot.

Holding smooth elections is a daunting task at the best of times in such a large country with poor infrastructure, and some of the challenges that beset preparations also troubled the vote itself.

In pockets of the southern Sidama region, voting was suspended and pushed to Tuesday after ballot papers ran out, the NEBE said.

Similar problems with planning and other logistical errors on the day saw voting abandoned in a small number of localities, and delayed starts and long waits in others.

Some opposition parties lodged complaints, alleging voting interference and the intimidation of their observers at polling stations.

More than 40 parties and 9,500 candidates are vying for seats nationally and regionally, but in some areas the opposition boycotted, including in Abiy’s populous and influential home region of Oromia.

There, the majority of national parliamentary seats were contested by sole candidates, election data showed, raising concerns about the vote’s credibility.

The election also spotlighted violent divisions across a diverse nation made up of dozens of different, often competing, ethnic groups.

Elections in several conflict-hit pockets of the country were deemed impossible on June 21, with armed insurgencies and ethnic violence posing risks.

Most were postponed to September 6, according to the NEBE.

But no vote has been scheduled at all for Tigray, a region of six million represented by 38 seats in the national parliament, afflicted by war and starvation.

Aid groups say 350,000 people face famine conditions in the northernmost region — a depiction the government disputes.

The UN rights chief, meanwhile, on Monday voiced alarm at ongoing “serious” atrocities in the region, including sexual violence and extrajudicial killings.

In November, Abiy sent troops into Tigray promising a swift campaign to oust its ruling party, but seven months later the conflict drags on. 

The fighting has damaged Abiy’s standing as a peacemaker and reformer, but his administration has remained defiant in the face of international criticism.

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