With historic win in elections, Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed consolidates power

Despite the numerous shortcomings, the participation of 46 political parties in an election with a voter registration of 78% and voter turnout of above 90%, was a major milestone in Ethiopia’s democratization

July 13, 2021 by Pavan Kulkarni

In its first electoral victory since being appointed as the Prime Minister in 2018, Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party (PP) secured 410 of the 436 seats in the Ethiopian parliament for which polls were held on June 21. The result of the election was announced by the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) on Saturday, July 10. 

Voting has not yet taken place for the remaining of the total 547 seats in the parliament, which for now will remain vacant. A majority of these seats are in the three regional states — Tigray, Harari and Somali — where the elections were not held due to the security situation and logistical challenges.

A date for the election is yet to be announced for the northernmost state of Tigray, where the federal defense forces have been embroiled in a civil war with the formerly ruling and now outlawed Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The civil war began after TPLF forces attacked a federal army base in November 2020. 

Due to lack of security in Harari State and ballot irregularities in the Somali State, elections here have been postponed to September 6. Outside of the 100-odd constituencies where the polls were not conducted, the nearly 38 million people registered to vote amounted to about 78% of the eligible citizens of Africa’s second-most populous country. The voter turnout was reported to be above 90%. 

In the most populous state of Oromia, predominantly inhabited by the people of Oromo ethnicity from which Ahmed hails, the two main opposition parties — Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) — had boycotted the election. 

Both the OLF and the OFC, like virtually all other opposition parties, are ethnically organized and are fiercely opposed to Ahmed’s vision of transcending the ethno-centered organization of the state power, which has characterized Ethiopian politics since the 1990s. 

The violent protests by these parties to exert the primacy of Oromo identity over Ahmed’s secular Ethiopian nationalism has been met with force. A number of their leaders are in prison, which was cited as the reason for boycott, providing the PP with a free run in many seats with no opposition to contest. 

The PP was expected to face the most competition in the second largest state of Amhara, whose militias are also fighting alongside the federal army against the TPLF. However, the ethno-centric National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) won only five seats, while PP bagged most of the rest, in a demonstration of Ahmed’s political support outside of Oromia.

The Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA), formed in 2019, is the only opposition party which is not organized along ethnic lines. With a limited base in the urban areas, the party won four seats.

NAMA, EZEMA, Ethiopian Social Democratic Party, Balderas for Genuine Democracy and Afar People’s Party have filed complaints alleging unfair electoral practices before the NEBE, which has announced a rerun in 10 constituencies.

A major milestone despite shortcomings

Despite the many shortcomings, a total of about 9,500 candidates from 46 political parties contested in this election, which makes it the highest ever participation in the country, according to NEBE’s chairperson, Birtukan Midekssa.

The only other multi-party party election since the fall of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in 1991 was in 2005, in which Midekssa herself had participated. However, those that had dared to challenge the then ruling coalition Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in these elections, including Midekssa, faced persecution. 

Twice imprisoned and subsequently forced into exile, she returned to Ethiopia only in 2018. This was after Abiy Ahmed, following his appointment as the Prime Minister amidst pro-democracy protests that rocked the country, released tens of thousands of political prisoners and invited back the exiles. He also lifted the ban on political parties outside the EPRDF and opened space for free press.  

The high number of parties which participated in this election, even though of little significance in terms of their ability to compete with Ahmed’s PP, is a testimony to the success of his political reforms. 

The two year old party, EZEMA, which has now entered the parliament with four seats, is led by Berhanu Nega, who also returned after reforms to Ethiopia from the US where he was forced into exile after being imprisoned and persecuted by EPRDF.

The EPRDF was a coalition of ethno-centric political parties which had reorganized Ethiopia as a loose federation of ethnic states, with militias of their own. In 2019, Ahmed dissolved the parties constituting this coalition and merged them into a single, multi-ethnic (or non-ethnicity based) PP, which has now cleared its first electoral test. 

The TPLF, which had been the dominant power inside EPRDF, refused to merge into the PP and was reduced to a regional force, in power only in Tigray. After the TPLF conducted elections in September last year in violation of the federal government’s decision to postpone the polls in light of the COVID pandemic, the federal government and the TPLF de-recognized each other, before the civil war that started in November.

With thousands killed, over two million displaced and an estimated 350,000 pushed towards famine in Tigray as a result of this war, Ahmed, who had won the Nobel peace Prize for making peace with Eritrea in 2018, has come under criticism by international agencies. Neighboring Sudan and Eritrea have also been sucked into this conflict.

Many progressive sections of the country who support Ahmed, express concern that the conflict in Tigray and the vitiated ethnic violence in many other parts of the country could lead to a slide back towards authoritarianism.

Despite all these glaring contradictions of Ahmed’s legacy, the sixth general election was a major milestone in Ethiopia’s struggle for democracy. “Besides being peaceful, the other legacy of the polls and Abiy’s political reform is the institutional stature of the National Election Board.. Led by former opposition figure Birtukan Mideksa, it has done a commendable job while projecting its independence, rigor and impartiality,” commented Tegbaru Yared, an Addis Ababa-based researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

“So far it seems to have met the expectations of many critical observers. Guaranteeing its independence and capacity could help consolidate Ethiopia’s democratization process,” he added.