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Ethiopian Perspective

Elections in Strained Dynamics

01 July 2021

The election, which was held in Ethiopia on Monday, June 21, 2021, was the most complicated election that the country has witnessed in more than three decades, or, more accurately, since the 1994 constitution was approved. The reason is that this election was held amid lots of internal challenges, not to mention the strong criticism of its legitimacy (both domestically and internationally) even before it was held. Ethiopians are warily looking forward to the results, which are supposed to be announced within a few days, despite that it is not unlikely that these results will escalate the tensions in an already unrest-ridden country.  

Elections in context

Over the past two decades, Ethiopia held five parliamentary elections; where the parliament exercises its power for a period of five years, according to the Ethiopian constitution. In all of these elections, electoral integrity was called into question, and public disorder took place in some regions and provinces. Furthermore, some political parties boycotted these elections, whereas others were prevented from participating on some pretext or other. 

As for the current election, it took place one year later than it was supposed to be held; On June 10, 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the House of Federation (the highest constitutional authority) approved a decision to postpone the election and extend the term of the federal parliament, the government, and all the federal and provincial assemblies. It also stipulated that once the Ministry of Health announces that the pandemic is under control, arrangements must be made for holding the elections within nine months, or a year at most. 

This delay has resulted in much tension domestically between the proponents and the opponents of the decision. The government of the Tigray province was particularly opposing the delay, especially as it led the ruling coalition for 27 years, before Abiy Ahmed assumed power and excluded Tigrayan politicians from the federal government. 

Contending that the Ethiopian constitution guarantees all citizens the right to run for election, this regional government announced that it was going to hold its own election in September 9, 2020, where 2.7 million people voted, in more than 2672 polling stations in Ethiopia's northern province.  

Following the election, conflict started between the Tigray government, led by Tigray People's Liberation Front (TLPF), and the federal government, and accusations of illegitimacy were exchanged. The situation escalated in November 4, 2020, and war broke out between the federal government and TLPF in the north. This war, which was strongly condemned by the international community and described as the worst war that the Horn of Africa has ever witnessed, has resulted in a growing humanitarian crisis.

It is noteworthy that TLPF used to lead the former ruling coalition (known as The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF for short) since it was formed in 1985. It assumed office from 1991 to 2018, when Abiy Ahmed became prime minister, ending its reign of power. Last December, Abiy Ahmed announced the formation of a new coalition, led by the Prosperity Party. TLPF refused to join this new coalition, questioning its legitimacy, and denouncing the measures taken by the new prime minister as an attempt to seize power from the elected government. 

Participating parties 

The last parliamentary election was to elect 547 parliament members that represent all strata of the Ethiopian society. However, due to the deteriorating security situation in Benishangul and Oromia, as well as the war in Tigray, the election was not held in many constituencies in these provinces. Besides, the election was postponed in Ogaden to next September. Nothing was announced about intentions to hold elections in Tigray; it is still unknown whether the Tigray seats in the parliament will remain empty. 

49 political parties are running for election, after the approval of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia. Most of the small parties merged together under the umbrella of major parties, the most important of which is the ruling party, Prosperity Party, presided by the prime minister. This party was formed in December 2019 by merging three former Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) parties-namely, Amhara Democratic Party, Oromo Democratic Party, and Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (SEPDM). Later on, other parties and entities joined the new Prosperity Party. Other parties joined the new Prosperity Party including Hareri National League,  Ethiopian Somali People's Democratic Party (ESPDP), The Afar National Democratic Party (ANDP), the Gambela People's Democratic Movement (GPDM), and, finally, the Benishangul-Gumuz People's Democratic Unity Front (BGPDUF).

The second key party running for this election is Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZeMa), which, in turn, consists of seven parties. There are also Balderas for Genuine Democracy (which has been recognized, relatively recently, as a political party) and ABN National Movement of Amhara, the most important political entity in Amhara province, in the north of Ethiopia.

This current scene is quite different from how things used to be in the past, as most of the parties running for this election have been recently formed. Only the Prosperity Party was represented in the previous parliament, with a majority of 512 seats (out of 547). This time, in order for a party to form the government, it needs to win by a majority of 274 seats. The competition was fierce, which was manifest in the campaigns of the various parties and coalitions. This is particularly true for the Prosperity Party, which is the most likely winner, due to the strong organizational skills of its members, and the fact that many political forces were excluded and forbidden to run for the election. There were various reasons for forbidding certain political parties from participating in the election, pertaining to their failure to register their candidates or hold their conferences according to the rules of the National Electoral Board. Furthermore, some parties, such as the Oromo Liberation Front and the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), withdrew from the election, not to mention the Tigray Liberation Front, which got engaged in a civil war against the central government, and therefore designated as a terrorist organization.  

Expected challenges 

Though the voting process was generally peaceful, representatives of various political parties and currents in Ethiopia, as well as political analysts, are closely following the vote counting in anxious anticipation of the result's implications for the already tense situation, bearing in mind the various challenges which the next government will have to face. 

The results will be announced in a completely different context; Ethiopia is witnessing a sociopolitical shift it has not seen in decades. First and foremost, there are the internal conflicts which broke out in many parts of the country, such as Tigray, the west of Oromia, and Benishangul-Gumuz (in addition to the recent situation in Amhara). 

There are also the political changes made by Abiy Ahmed, who adopted an open-door policy and invited all parties to return to Ethiopian political life as soon as he became prime minister. Many weighty, well-established parties (i.e., Oromo Liberation Front, Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party, Ginbot Sabat, etc.) had chosen to abandon the Ethiopian political arena more than three decades ago, preferring instead to work from abroad, and, consequently, had always been the target of accusations from pre-Abiy Ahmed governments (the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front had had the lion's share of such accusations).  

However, Abiy Ahmed soon changed his approach, excluding certain parties and preventing them from participating in the elections. This is expected to provoke those parties' supporters, especially in the major provinces. Besides, Abiy Ahmed was accused of playing for time by using the Coronavirus crisis as a pretext to postpone the election, especially as he refused to form a transitional government comprising all political currents that would rule for one year, beginning from the end of his term in October 2020, until the election was held.  This created some sort of suspicion and tension between political parties on one hand, and the ruling party on the other hand. 

The situation was even made worse as people were prevented from voting and the election results were annulled in a number of constituencies which violated the decision of the National Election Board of Ethiopia not to hold elections there.  For example, Birtukan Mideksa, Chairperson of the Board, annulled the voting process in 100 polling stations in Oromia for this reason. The political entities which were forbidden from taking part in the election are more than likely to react to their exclusion. 

In addition, Ethiopia is facing international pressures, due to internal conflicts as well as accusations of breaching human rights and minority rights (which resulted in internal displacement). A UN official also accused Addis Ababa of starving people. 

There are also the challenges associated with the Renaissance Dam, which took a longer time than expected to finish its construction because of certain financial, technical and security challenges it has faced for more than five years. Furthermore, there is the Ethiopia-Sudan territorial dispute which has escalated in the last few months. 

Apart from the aforementioned challenges, many sectors and regional governments are demanding that constitution articles pertaining to the borders between certain provinces be amended, in order to solve long-standing internal conflicts, such as the conflicts between Ethiopia's Somali region and Oromia, Benishangul and Amhara, and Tigray and Amhara. Yet, another challenge facing the government is that the big cities are being claimed by some ethnic minorities. For example, the new projects in Addis Ababa led to tensions between its inhabitants and the government.  

In all contexts, the next Ethiopian government will inevitably face many challenges. Regardless of its political orientation, it is hard to predict whether it will be able to deal with these challenges meanwhile avoiding further internal tension.