| 3 March 2024, Sunday |

Ethiopia prepares for tense, long-delayed elections

Ethiopia is gearing up for national and regional parliamentary elections on Monday, which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has described as the country’s first free and fair elections in decades.

However, due to violent clashes and logistical issues, voting has been postponed in 110 of the 547 seats, and several opposition parties are boycotting the polls over what they call intimidation of their members. One candidate is running for office while incarcerated.

Abiy won international plaudits and a Nobel Peace Prize for democratic reforms and for ending two decades of hostilities with neighboring Eritrea when he was named head of Ethiopia’s governing coalition in 2018. Within months of taking office, he unbanned opposition parties, released tens of thousands of political prisoners, and took steps to open up one of Africa’s last untapped markets.

He now faces mounting international pressure over a war in the northern Tigray region and accusations from rights groups that his government is rolling back some new freedoms, which it denies. Abiy’s spokesperson Billene Seyoum declined to comment.

The elections on Monday will be Abiy’s government’s first test of voter support. The polls will be “the nation’s first attempt at free and fair elections,” Abiy announced on Twitter this week.

Elections in the past have been marred by allegations of vote tampering. Every parliamentary seat was gained by the ruling coalition and its allies in 2015.

Some 37 million people out of Ethiopia’s 109 million people have registered to vote, though some will have to wait until September for a second round of voting.

In Tigray, where Ethiopia’s military has been fighting the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), since November, no date for polling has been established.


Abiy’s Prosperity Party remains the front-runner in a field of 46 parties vying for parliamentary seats. The opposition is fragmented between smaller, mostly ethnically-based parties.

Merera Gudina, an ethnic Oromo and head of the Oromo Federalist Congress, was initially supportive of Abiy’s reform agenda. But he said his party would boycott the elections after regional security forces shut down 203 of their offices in Oromiya region during the last year, leaving only three open.

Merera, a former political prisoner, said thousands are detained.

“Our hope for free, fair, credible elections (is) dashed.”

Gizachew Gebisa, deputy spokesperson for the Oromiya regional administration, referred questions to regional police commissioner Ararsa Merdasa, who did not respond.

The leader of another party, Balderas for Genuine Democracy, is jailed on terrorism charges, which he denies. Judges ruled in May that Eskinder Nega, an ethnic Amhara, could stand for parliament while in prison.

Others are more optimistic about next week’s vote.

“Nobody expects everything to be flawless. However, we believe that this country requires a fresh start “tries to transcend ethnic power blocs, said Birhanu Nega, whose Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party (Ezema) has struggled to win support outside of metropolitan centers.

In 2019, Abiy founded the Prosperity Party by combining three of the four ethnically oriented parties in the ruling coalition, as well as smaller regional parties, into a single national party.

The Ethiopian People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had dominated the ruling coalition for nearly three decades until Abiy took office, declined to participate. It accused him of consolidating authority at the expense of Ethiopia’s ethnically diverse regions, a charge he disputes.

The elections were originally scheduled for August 2020, but Abiy postponed them citing the COVID-19 pandemic. The TPLF held elections in Tigray anyway, setting it on a collision course with the government.

Thousands have been killed and over 2 million people have been displaced as a result of the violence in Tigray. The United Nations issued a famine warning last week in several places.

In March, Abiy informed parliament that claims of abuses in the country, including as gang rapes and mass executions, were “exaggerated.” He did say, though, that any abuses would be investigated and the culprits prosecuted.

More than 50 soldiers are on trial for rape or killing civilians, according to the attorney general, but no specifics have been released.

Violence has also erupted in other parts of the country, when ethnic power brokers took advantage of Abiy’s political opportunity to stretch their muscles. Hundreds of people have killed in skirmishes on the border between Ethiopia’s two most populated regions, Oromiya and Amhara.

“A recognized devil is better than an unknown angel,” Asheber Aboneh, a 32-year-old engineer from Oromiya, said he’d vote for Abiy nevertheless.

  • Reuters