SAWT BEIRUT INTERNATIONAL

| 21 February 2024, Wednesday |

Ethiopians to vote in what government bills as first free election

Ethiopians voted in national and regional elections on Monday, which the Prime Minister hailed as confirmation of his dedication to democracy after decades of harsh rule in Africa’s second-largest country.

Following his appointment by the ruling coalition in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, 45, oversaw substantial political and economic reforms. However, some human rights groups claim that these accomplishments are being reversed, and they allege abuses in Ethiopia’s Tigray area, which the government denies.

Last week, Abiy claimed the poll will be Ethiopia’s “first attempt at free and fair elections,” after the country’s economy was damaged by conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Results of the vote could reverberate beyond Ethiopia. The Horn of Africa nation is a diplomatic heavyweight in a volatile region, providing peacekeepers to Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. It also is one of the world’s biggest frontier markets.

In the capital, voters began to arrive shortly before polls opened at 6 a.m.

“Our hope is those we voted for will bring development,” said security guard Sisay Kebede, 50, after he cast the first ballot at his polling station. Eight others waited in the cool morning air.

Abiy’s newly established Prosperity Party is leading a crowded field of candidates, the most of whom are from smaller ethnically-based parties. The capital is adorned with billboards bearing his party’s lightbulb symbol.

Berhanu Nega, a former political prisoner, is the only other notable contender who is not running on an ethnic platform. His Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party, on the other hand, has struggled to gain traction outside of the capital.

The ruling coalition and its allies won all 547 seats in the recent election. More over 37 million of Ethiopia’s 109 million inhabitants are registered to vote this time, with 46 political parties to choose from. According to the electoral board, there are more candidates running this time than in any previous election.

Not all of the parties are participating. The major opposition groups in Oromiya, Ethiopia’s most populated province, are boycotting due to claimed harassment by regional security personnel. Officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Voting has been postponed in a fifth of constituencies due to problems with voter registration and simmering ethnic conflict. In September, there will be a second round of voting.

In Tigray, where the government has been fighting the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, since November, no date for polling has been established. According to the United Nations, 350,000 people are in risk of starvation.

‘ALMOST A DEMOCRACY’

Drinking a beer in the capital Addis Ababa, retired civil servant Yohannes Asrat said he had seen both force and rigging during elections in his lifetime but hoped Monday’s vote would be different. “We’re almost a democracy,” he said.

Abiy’s reforms include lifting a ban on dozens of political parties and media outlets, releasing tens of thousands of political prisoners and easing restrictions on political gatherings.

But Fisseha Tekle from rights group Amnesty International said the government was still quashing dissent using a revised anti-terrorism law and new hate speech legislation that can lead to prison terms for online content.

“The government is using these laws to arrest people and keep them in prison for a long time,” Fisseha said.

Many construction projects in the capital have come to a halt as the economy of what was once one of Africa’s fastest growing nations has halted, leaving skeletons of incomplete structures covered in ragged sheeting. Many voters are more concerned with economic revival than with political improvements.

Abiy has promised to attract foreign investment and accelerate electricity by constructing a massive $4 billion hydropower dam on the Blue Nile, escalating tensions with Egypt and Sudan, which are concerned that their Nile water supplies may be disrupted.

However, yearly inflation is currently above 20%, and growth is expected to be only 2% this year, down from 10% before the outbreak.

“The cost of living is increasing,” said shopkeeper Murad Merga, whose window was adorned with ruling party posters. But he remained upbeat: “Everything will be fixed step by step.”

    Source:
  • Reuters