Ethiopia is set to hold important and twice-postponed elections on June 21, despite rising concerns about the vote’s credibility and a famine in war-torn Tigray.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was installed in 2018 after years of anti-government protests, is seeking a popular mandate through competitive elections to cement Africa’s second-most populous country’s promised democratic rebirth.
Despite continuous conflict and a humanitarian disaster in Tigray, where polling will not take place on Monday, and in several other restive sections of the nation, the Nobel Peace Prize winner is pushing ahead with the election.
The election, Ethiopia’s sixth since the end of military rule 30 years ago, is being boycotted by opposition parties in other key regions.
All prior elections failed to meet international fairness requirements, and Abiy, who rose to prominence early on for instituting democratic and economic changes, claims that June 21 will signal a break with the dictatorial past.
“In one week, Ethiopians will vote in the sixth national elections, which will be the country’s first effort at free and fair elections,” Abiy said on Twitter on Monday.
“Vote next Monday… collectively, let’s make it a truly historic day!”
But the war in Tigray — not Abiy’s much-vaunted vote — has been the focus of global concern, with appeals from the pope and world leaders at the G7 for the bloodshed to end.
According to UN agencies, 350,000 people in the northern region are famine-stricken, including tens of thousands of malnourished children. Ethiopia denies the data, claiming that humanitarian organizations have unrestricted access to the region.
Since sending the army into Tigray in November to overthrow the ruling TPLF party, Abiy’s reputation as a reformer and mediator has been severely tarnished.
Eritrean troops and militias joined the conflict, which Abiy promised would be brief but has now lasted seven months. Terrible atrocities and suspected ethnic cleansing have marked the struggle.
There will be no vote in the mountainous region of six million on June 21, with no future date set.
But Tigray — with 38 of the 547 seats in Ethiopia’s national parliament — is just one place where no ballots will be cast Monday.
Ethnic violence and logistical setbacks forced the National Election Board of Ethiopia to postpone voting in numerous locations until September 6. The board has not specified the exact number of constituencies affected, but there are dozens in addition to Tigray.
The United States, which has long been an ally of Ethiopia but has been a vociferous critic as the Tigray conflict drags on, has expressed concern about the voting conditions.
Last week, State Department spokesman Ned Price warned that the imprisonment of important opposition leaders and ethnic violence ravaging large swaths of the country pose “obstacles to a free and fair voting process and whether Ethiopians would regard them as trustworthy.”
“It is particularly distressing that substantial sectors of the voters have been excluded from this election due to security concerns and internal displacement,” he continued.
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.
Staging nationwide elections is a logistical feat at the best of times in the enormous nation of 110 million where poor infrastructure barely reaches into remoter parts of savannah, mountain and desert terrain.
The first postponement was due to the coronavirus pandemic in August 2020, and the vote was subsequently pushed again to June 21 due to technical issues, such as a major shortage of election officials and sluggish voter registration.
The board claimed in early June, only weeks before the election, that though ballot paper problems and phony polling stations had hampered preparations, around 37 million voters had registered.
Abiy’s Prosperity Party has the most candidates running for national parliamentary seats and is the clear favorite to win, with a reach that no other political party can match.
The campaign has remained relatively quiet in the city, Addis Ababa, while an AFP journalist south of the capital, Hawassa, observed a near-total lack of opposition posters this week.