Ethiopia: Indefinite postponement of polls raising political tempers

By Morris Kiruga
Posted on Monday, 25 May 2020 16:53

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks at a news conference at his office in Addis Ababa
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks at a news conference at his office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 1 August 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Ethiopia's decision to postpone its August 2020 elections indefinitely has raised political temperatures in the country, as both the government and opposition parties accuse each other of attempting a power grab.

Beginning late March, Addis Ababa sought to reorganise its electoral calendar, which would have seen the country hold its first democratic elections in 15 years. The electoral body, which had warned previously about the challenges of holding an election amidst a myriad of issues including insecurity and weather, proposed postponing the poll date.

READ MORE Coronavirus: Ethiopia’s opportunity to reboot its troubled transition

The proposal was approved by parliament in April, but doing so has triggered a looming constitutional crisis.

Increasingly harder for the ruling party

While it makes sense not to hold polls amidst a global pandemic, the political space has grown rapidly over the last two years, making it harder for the ruling party to govern by decree.

  • The main issue is that according to Ethiopian laws, the terms of the current governments (both national and federal) automatically expire on 30 September.
  • The ruling party has laid out four options, each with its own complications. These include: Dissolving parliament; Declaring a state of emergency; Changing the laws; Seeking “constitutional interpretations” from the upper house of the country’s parliament.

While Prime MinisterAbiy Ahmed’s government has chosen the last option, opposition leaders such as Jawar Mohammed are not so convinced by it.

“The constitution does not have provisions pertaining to the postponement of elections compounded by a global pandemic,” the opposition leader wrote in the Addis Standard, “[and]…the HoF [House of Federation] can only interpret in an attempt to seek clarifications on what is written in the constitution.”

Although the upper house includes representatives from all region’s of Ethiopia, the ruling party dominates the lower house.

Postponement carries a warning

In June last year, opposition leaders warned that postponing the 2020 elections would “anger the public” and have “grave consequences.” At the time, the main issue was insecurity, although some opposition leaders repeatedly pointed out that it would be hard to hold free and fair elections in a largely rural country in August, which is one of the region’s rainy seasons.

Now, nearly all opposition parties have rejected the indefinite postponement. The ruling party’s former founding partner, the Tigray’s People Liberation Front (TPLF), has threatened to hold its own elections in the Tigray region.

READ MORE Abiy Ahmed paddles Ethiopia’s Prosperity Party towards elections

Other opposition leaders have called for dialogue on this issue before September. In his op-ed for the Addis Standard, Jawar Mohammed stressed that the right solution “is more political rather than constitutional.”

Dr. Adem Kassie Abebe, a programme officer in the Constitution Building Program of International IDEA offered a more precise proposal of a “caretaker government” which, although not provided for “…has been recognized in relevant rules and regulations of the parliament.”

Escalating political temperatures

These proposals are happening while political temperatures, which were already high, are escalating. The TPLF has accused its former partners, who merged after its exit to form the Prosperity Party of using the pandemic to make a power grab. PM Abiy has also accused the opposition parties of doing the same thing.

With 582 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of 25 May, Ethiopia is still in the early stages of the effects of the coronavirus. The pandemic has also disrupted the country’s economic recovery, which was PM Abiy’s main focus after expanding the political space.

READ MORE Ethiopian economic liberalisation threatened by looming crisis

  • In an op-ed for The New York Times, the Ethiopian leader called on G20 countries to take “immediate and forceful action on debt” to “prevent a humanitarian disaster today and shore up our economy for tomorrow.”
  • “Ethiopia must spend an extra $3 billion by the end of 2020 to address the consequences of the pandemic, while our balance of payments is set to deteriorate,” he added.

Added complication

The pandemic has also further complicated the Grand Renaissance Dam issue, as the July start date draws nearer.

LISTEN Ethiopia – Egypt: Tension spikes despite Renaissance Dam talks

The issue is now before the United Nations Security Council, after Egypt filed a complaint with the UN body on May. In its response, Addis Ababa said it ““does not have [a] legal obligation” to seek Egypt’s approval to fill the dam.


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