Poll positions

Ethiopia: Tigray regional polls escalate tensions with Addis Ababa

By Morris Kiruga

Posted on August 27, 2020 11:07

An Ethiopian woman casts her vote at a polling centre in the capital Addis Ababa
An Ethiopian woman casts her vote at a polling centre in Addis Ababa, May 23, 2010. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

The window for solving the election dispute between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray region is getting narrow, as the latter approaches its regional poll slated for September.

Campaigns in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray began at the start of August, after the region’s leaders declared they would go ahead with local elections despite a nationwide postponement.

READ MORE Ethiopia: Indefinite postponement of polls raising political tempers

Since the postponement in May, the divide over the elections has ebbed and flowed, at times escalating into open threats.

  • At the heart of the dispute is decision made in June to extend the term of the current federal and regional administrations until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, which Tigrayan leadership claim is an unconstitutional ploy to postpone the elections indefinitely.
  • The decision to continue with the elections does not sit well with Addis Ababa, where federal officials have threatened to halt the polls. A former minister in Tigray’s regional government said the region would be “more than glad to pay any price and sacrifice to make sure that the people of Tigray have their freedom.”

On 31 July, the country’s Upper House warned the region against going ahead with the elections. A few days later, the region held a military parade in Mekele, of which it said was about COVID-19 interventions and not a show of might.

Growing tensions

The tensions between the national government in Addis Ababa and Tigrayan leadership could escalate, regional analysts warn, urging talks between the two sides. “The African Union chairperson, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, could play the role, if necessary in association with other continental leaders,” the International Crisis Group recommends in a briefing published on 14 August.

  • “The statesmen could start by encouraging Abiy and his administration to avoid provocative measures, including cuts to Tigray’s finances (let alone military intervention), and to engage in a dialogue with Tigray to discuss possible electoral compromises and steps to mend the rift.”
  • In July, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ruled out any extreme measures such as military intervention or budget cuts to halt the elections in Tigray, but the dispute between them has not abated.

The Tigray leadership began laying groundwork for its elections in June, after the national elections board declined to conduct the polls.

READ MORE Ethiopia delays elections: Is COVID a valid excuse?

It appointed a five-person election commission in mid-July, selected by the ruling party and three opposition parties; two other opposition parties declined to participate in the polls, from a list of over 100 people submitted by the public.

Finding a solution in the next few weeks now looks increasingly unlikely, as the dispute stems from “Tigray’s belief that its right to hold autonomous regional elections stems from its right to self-rule, on one hand; the central government’s conviction that no regional state can defy the constitution and parliament’s decision on electoral matters, on the other,” the ICG noted in its briefing.

Likely scenarios

Tigray’s opposition to the decision to postpone national polls have undoubtedly put it on a collision course with Addis Ababa, but the biggest risk lies in what follows the region’s polls. It is likely that both sides will use the polls to further discredit each other, as the federal government maintains the decision to postpone the polls was constitutional, while the TPLF maintains that the Prosperity Party’s mandate ends on 10 October.

READ MORE Abiy Ahmed must learn from the failed Ethio-Eritrean federation

If the elections do go on, the results will see a deepening division between Mekele and Addis Ababa. In the unlikely event, for example, that one of the three opposition parties wins, then PM Abiy’s government would likely refuse to recognise it.

If the incumbent party wins a new mandate, it would worsen its already fraught relationship with Addis. Either way, these polls will set the region’s election calendar out of sync with the rest of the country, which could trigger yet another crisis when Ethiopia goes to vote in 2020.

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