Ethiopia’s election hints at new possibilities, throws up fresh challenges

The recent elections in Ethiopia are a major test for prime minister Abiy Ahmed and his agenda of building a larger national identity even as he has faced severe criticism after the civil war in Tigray

June 22, 2021 by Pavan Kulkarni
Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed delivers his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2019.

The sixth general election held in Ethiopia on Monday, June 21, is the first electoral test of the Nobel Peace prize winner, Abiy Ahmed, who came to power in 2018 amid mass demonstrations against the then government’s authoritarianism.

Originally scheduled for August 2020, the election was delayed by almost a year due to the pandemic, and was finally held amid a civil war in the State of Tigray. The security situation is also deteriorating in the States of Somali and Harari. As a result, elections were not held in at least 102 of the 547 constituencies.

Many of the large opposition parties, virtually all of which are organized on the basis of ethnicity, boycotted the election. As a result, the Prosperity Party led by Ahmed was the only party to field candidates in some constituencies.

Nevertheless, a total of 9,500 candidates from 46 parties contested for the remaining seats. This the highest ever participation in the country, according to Birtukan Midekssa, the chairperson of the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE)

Formerly a lawyer, political dissident and the founder of an opposition party, Mideksaa had taken part in the 2005 election. Subsequently, imprisoned twice and later exiled, she had returned to Ethiopia following the political reforms by Ahmed soon after he came to power.

“It is my strong expectation that for the first time in Ethiopia’s history, diverse and multiple political parties from across the political spectrum will take their seats in Ethiopia’s national and regional parliaments,” she wrote in the National Interest a day before the election.

“Where we fall short on June 21, Ethiopia’s nearly 50,000 independent citizen observers will let us know. The African Union will also observe the process, as will the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute,” she added. “There are more people observing this process than in any previous election in Ethiopia,” she said.

While the European Union had withdrawn its observation mission citing security concerns, Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president of Nigeria who headed the African Union Election Observation Mission (AUEOM), commented that the election was “a lot better than elections in the past in terms of opening space for electoral participation, in spite [of] some handicaps.”

“It’s a reasonably credible electoral process which is a step towards a better election in future. But the overall political environment creates a challenge for a fully free and fair election,” Daniel Bekele, head of the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), told the Financial Times.

“Yes there are irregularities here and there. But so long as they do not affect the outcome of it,” opposition leader Berhanu Nega was quoted as saying the following, Borkena reported. The Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party (EZEMA), which he heads, is virtually the only opposition party which is not organized along ethnic lines.

Abiy Ahmed’s legacy of reforms

Like Mideksaa, Nega is also a formerly persecuted political dissident, who was tried in absenstia while in exile and awarded the death penalty under the formerly ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). He returned to Ethiopia after Abiy Ahmed released tens of thousands of political prisoners, lifted the ban on several political parties and publications, and welcomed back the political exiles, scrapping the charges against them.

Along with these measures in 2018, Ahmed also negotiated a peace deal with Eritrea, ending the more than two decades of animosity between the two countries. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – with which the federal troops are currently engaged in a civil war in Tigray – was opposed to the peace deal.

In December 2019, Ahmed dissolved the EPRDF and merged the various ethnically organized parties under this coalition into a single multi-ethnic – or rather non-ethnicity based – Prosperity Party, which participated in its first election on Monday. The TPLF, which had been the dominant political force in this coalition, opposed the merger of EPRDF parties, and became a regional force, in power only in Tigray.

In September 2020, a month after the election was postponed, the TPLF organized the election in Tigray and won the majority of the seats. In early November, civil war broke out after TPLF troops attacked a federal army base in Tigray’s capital city Mekelle, following which Ahmed ordered the army into the region.

The Tigrayan political force is not the only one frustrating Ahmed’s efforts to promote an Ethiopian nationalism that transcends the ethnic fissures. The radical ethno-centric parties of Oromos – the ethnicity from which Abiy Ahmed hails – are also violently opposed to his secular vision, and insist on the precedence of Oromo identity over a pan-Ethiopian identity. These parties have boycotted the election.

The violent protests they resorted to mid-last year led to clashes with security forces causing about a hundred deaths. In the vast crackdown that followed, about 9,000 people – including journalists, activists and political leaders – were arrested. Many of them are allegedly held without pressing charges.

Many among the progressive section of the population, which had cheered Ahmed’s reforms as a major step towards the realization of basic civil and political rights, fear that the deteriorating security situation in the country could lead to a reversal of crucial gains made under his rule in 2018. Similarly, the aftermath of the civil war in Tigray, when human rights abuses took place in the region, as well as certain anti-democratic steps initiated by Ahmed had led to severe criticism of the prime minister’s approach.

Nonetheless, continued support of sections of the middle class for Ahmed was evident in the many long queues at the voting booths in Addis Ababa on June 21. Many in these queues were also supporters of the opposition party EZEMA led by Berhanu Nega. But its support base is limited to Ethiopia’s two cities.

On the other hand, Ahmed has considerable support among the people of his ethnicity which makes up 55% Ethiopia’s population. Most of them reside in the state of Oromia, where the boycott by ethnic parties has given a virtually uncontested victory to the Prosperity Party. Ahmed’s efforts to undermine the role of ethnicity in state power has also instilled a sense of security in significant sections of the minority ethnicities.

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