Ethiopians head to the polls amid opposition crackdown, raging humanitarian disaster, nationwide unrest and famine in Tigray

Ethiopians headed to the polls on Monday morning to elect a new parliament amid opposition crackdown, a raging humanitarian crisis, nationwide unrest and famine in the northern region of Tigray.

The election, initially scheduled to take place last August, was postponed twice due to the coronavirus pandemic and logistical constraints, according to the government. It is Ethiopia’s first multi-party election in 16 years.

Abiy Ahmed Ali will remain Prime Minister if his ruling Prosperity Party (PP) garners the highest number of votes in the federal parliament. According to Ethiopia’s constitution, the head of the ruling party emerges as the country’s Prime Minister.

There are 47 political parties participating in the general and regional election but Abiy’s Prosperity Party has the highest number of registered candidates contesting for seats at the parliament with a total of 2,432 aspirants followed by Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, which has 1,385 candidates in the election.

At least 37 million of Ethiopia’s 109 million people have registered to vote, although many Ethiopians in conflict-ravaged areas will wait until September to cast their ballots when the second round of voting takes place.

Abiy became Prime Minister in April 2018 following the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn who renounced his chairmanship of the then ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). That coalition consisted of four political parties and had dominated Ethiopia’s politics from 1991 to 2019.

In 2019, Abiy, who succeeded Desalegn as chairman of the EPRDF, announced the dissolution and merger of the the four-member party into the Prosperity Party he created, prompting opposition figures to characterize the move as a power grab.

The Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), one of the coalition’s dominant parties rejected the merger, leading to a conflict that has now killed thousands of people and displaced more than a million others.

The 44-year-old Prime Minister won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 but has vigorously pursued conflict over peace, including using famine as a weapon of war. He is the first Oromo to lead Ethiopia.

Recent moves by some leading opposition figures to boycott the election amid government crackdown have made Abiy’s chances at the polls even brighter.

Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, has long been divided along political and ethnic lines. The recent conflict in the Tigray region and unrest in other parts of the country, including in Oromia, where many opposition figures remain in detention, have made things more difficult to predict.

Gudina Merera, the leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress, a party representing the Oromo people, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, had called for political prisoners to be released and a true dialogue to take place before the election can be held.

The government has detained many Oromo opposition figures since the killing of a popular singer last year by gunmen sparked unrest in Oromia. Many are being held incommunicado across the country to this day.

“As we have been insisting, any democratic elections must take place after a meaningful national dialogue, the release of all political prisoners, and the opening of our forcefully closed offices throughout Oromia. We won’t participate in a sham elections and give it legitimacy,” Gudina Merera wrote on Twitter last March.

But Abiy began his tenure as a good leader, promising to reform the country and freeing political prisoners. He won praises at home and abroad, but that soon evaporated.

Early this month, the Biden administration said it was “gravely concerned” that the June 21 elections in Ethiopia may not be free, fair or credible.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali address the media briefing at the conclusion of the Official Visit by the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia at the Union Buildings in Tshwane. January 12, 2020 
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali address the media briefing at the conclusion of the Official Visit by the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia at the Union Buildings in Tshwane. January 12, 2020

“The detention of opposition politicians, harassment of independent media, partisan activities by local and regional governments, and the many interethnic and inter-communal conflicts across Ethiopia are obstacles to a free and fair electoral process and whether Ethiopians would perceive them as credible,” U.S. Department of State spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement. 

The administration described the exclusion of large segments of the electorate from the contest due to security issues and internal displacement as “particularly troubling.”

It, however, called on the government of Ethiopia and all Ethiopians to embrace inclusion and dialogue after the elections, adding that they should not be seen as “a singular event” but rather as part of a democratic political process that involves “dialogue, cooperation, and compromise.”

“To that end, we urge the Government of Ethiopia and all Ethiopians to commit to an inclusive, post-election political dialogue to determine a path forward to strengthen the country’s democracy and national unity,” Price said.

The hardening of regional and ethnic divisions in multiple parts of Ethiopia threaten the country’s unity and territorial integrity, the Biden administration added. 

“The period following these elections will be a critical moment for Ethiopians to come together to confront these divisions.  The United States stands ready to help Ethiopia address these challenges and find a path to a brighter future.  We stand with all Ethiopians working toward a peaceful, democratic, and secure future for the country,” Price added.

Chief White House Correspondent for

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

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