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Ethiopia elections: 10 things to watch out for

By Loza Seleshie
Posted on Friday, 18 June 2021 09:15, updated on Monday, 21 June 2021 10:46

Supporters of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stand near a banner, as they attend his last campaign event ahead of Ethiopia's parliamentary and regional elections scheduled for June 21, in Jimma, Ethiopia, June 16, 2021. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

On 21 June, Ethiopians will vote in legislative and regional elections. Twice postponed due to Covid-19 and security issues, the upcoming ballot promises to be crucial for Africa’s second most populous country. What are the various flashpoints around Ethiopia? Who are the main parties? Here are 10 things you should know ahead of the polls.

1. EPRDF

For the first time in 30 years, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) will not be participating in the polls. The once ruling coalition party has been restructured  following Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power in 2018.

The bloc’s core party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front lost its political grip on the EPRDF and that was symbolised by Abiy’s election as prime minister.

“TPLF’s authoritarianism, political and economic domination had triggered a rebellion by the Oromo and Amhara members of the EPRDF coalition” according to Aregawi Berhe, one of its founding members.

This led to a terminal split with Abiy and his allies creating the Prosperity Party, seen as more ambivalent about the EPRDF’s ideology of ethnic federalism. The TPLF opposed the Prosperity Party (PP) and said it would stand as an independent entity in regional and national elections.

Ignoring the national government’s decision to postpone elections, the TPLF held regional elections last September but these were declared illegitimate. Then the TPLF’s forces clashed with federal forces in November and the conflict escalated, drawing in Eritrean forces.

2. Questioning federalism

Abiy Ahmed’s decision came amidst debate on the efficiency of the federal structure in Ethiopia. “[…]The federal structure has caused lots of problems for the country. This is primarily because it is constituted along ethnic lines,” argues Yohannes Gedamu, lecturer of Political Science at Georgia Gwinnett College.

20 national parties will be seeking seats in the 547-member House of People’s Representatives (HPR while thirty-three regional parties will compete for the State Councils (SC).

There is a lack of consensus about how much federalism would work best in Ethiopia. Some commentators see the Prosperity Party as moving the dial back towards a unitary state.

3. Identity not necessarily driving parties

Interestingly, few national parties have ethnic denominations. The arithmetical reality is that no political party can win national power by appealing to only one ethnic group – a successful national party has to draw together a coalition of ethnicities and regions.

While seven of them identify as “Ethiopian”, they are perhaps less attached to the federal system:

  • All Ethiopian Unity Party
  • Ethiopian Democratic Union
  • Ethiopian Social Democratic Party
  • Hibir Ethiopia Democratic Party
  • Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party
  • Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary party
  • Ethiopian Freedom Party

Others have chosen an ideal as their identity, including:

  • Balderas for True Democracy Party
  • New Generation Party
  • Freedom and Equality Party
  • Prosperity Party

“Debates about the [federal] system have resurfaced since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office,” adds Yohannes Gedamu.

“And the country’s parliament has set up commissions to look into some of the pressing issues facing the federal system. These include the need for national reconciliation and where domestic administrative borders should be drawn.” An issue with consequences on the electoral process

4. Ahmed Abiy

The Prime Minister – whose own trajectory has been a rollercoaster from Nobel peace prize laureate to facing accusations of war crimes – has much riding on this election.

“We are facing an election that will develop or destroy our country, build it or demolish it”, says Abiy. “We, Ethiopians, firmly know that the division that has been borne out of conflict is not a better option. I want to call again for an agreement and for the protection and prosperity of our country”.

But he is facing much pressure from his own base – many in Oromia believing he has not been tough enough in protecting their interests.

5. Oromia

Abiy’s decision to grant amnesty to rebel groups such as the Oromo Liberation Front was seen as radical step when he became prime minister in 2018. But it has not brought a political breakthrough – if anything, conflicts have increased in the region.

Some identity-based opposition figures such as Jawar Mohammed (Oromo Federalist Congress), Bekele Gerba (Oromo Federalist Congress) were arrested on terrorism charges.

The subsequent boycott of the elections by the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) could be an advantage for Abiy Ahmed running in the Oromia region.

6. Tigray

Given the conflict in Tigray, no election date for the region has been set thus far. The whole region is off limits.

This raises constitutional questions for the national government which names the TPLF as a terrorist organisation and doesn’t recognise the legitimacy of the regional elections last September. It has installed an un-elected caretaker government in the region and says it will hold fresh elections as soon as security conditions permit.

7. Ogaden

The Prosperity Party has been nominating members of the Somali’s Region’s parliament; almost a third of the nominees are women. It’s not necessarily a boost to women’s empowerment as those constituencies are seen a less important at the regional or zonal level.

A complicating factor could be the alliance between Abiy in Addis Ababa and President Ahmed ‘Farmajo’ in Mogadishu – Farmajo is a divisive figure among Somalis, within the country or in neighbouring states such as Ethiopia or Kenya.

Most people assume the Prosperity Party will win in the region so the contest is over getting a party nomination. The other parties have few resources but the PP has state patronage.

The Ethiopian National Election Board has delayed starting its work in Ogaden. Visiting the Ogaden in March Khalif Abdirahman, of the Rift Valley Institute and a  Senior Researcher with the London School of Economics, wrote: “The danger is that this feeling of powerlessness in districts is fuelling multiple clan conflicts across the Somali state which, if left unchecked, may make holding elections within them impossible.”

The locus of conflict had changed, notes Khalif Abdirahman: “Nomads are no longer fighting over pasture and water; the actual resource is political clout, which wide territory and many settlements will bring. Clans are arming and security forces are so far struggling to keep them apart. With elections taking place in disputed areas, keeping the peace between them may become more difficult.”

8. International partners

Western powers, the US and the European Union, have called for a ceasefire in the Tigray war, open humanitarian access to the region and for the postponement of the elections – Abiy’s government has ignored all three demands, accusing the West of breaching Ethiopia’s sovereignty.

The African Union’s effort to organise an independent investigation into allegations of atrocities in Tigray was quickly slapped down by the ministry of foreign affairs in Addis Ababa.

The signs are the Western powers will have little or no influence on the outcome of these elections: a marginal fact might be that those who oppose the war in Tigray and sympathise with the West’s position on it might vote against Abiy.

Regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and UAE are backing Egypt in its dispute with Ethiopia over the filling of the Renaissance dam, so they are unlikely to be a factor in the elections. That said, the UAE was said to have been providing military equipment to the federal forces in Tigray but it’s unclear whether this would extend to backing any back for Abiy’s Prosperity Party.

China and Russia abjure any public statements on the elections, citing their respect for national sovereignty. They are quietly celebrating Abiy’s war with the west which has given them a position of far greater importance in this new era.

Another important external issue is the role of Eritrea’s Isaias Aferwerki: those who support the war in Tigray might thank Asmara but others may see his’ role as an affront to Ethiopia’s national standing.

9. Delays and regions

Security and procedure issues have been crucial, as well as upcoming referendums in the Southern regions. Indeed, Abiy’s rise to power was followed by requests for more autonomy in some regions.

These factors have delayed the process in six of the nine regions of the country:

  • Benishangul-Gumuz region (delayed in 4 constituencies)
  • Oromia region ( delayed in 7 constituencies)
  • Amhara region (delayed in 8 constituencies)
  • Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (delayed in 6 constituencies)
  • Harar region (delayed in 2 constituencies)
  • Somali region (not specified)

The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia has announced elections in these areas would be conducted on 6 September 2021. This means 64 seats in the HPR will be vacant until said date.

10. Shifting forces

With 32 million Ethiopians registered to vote, what are their options?

The political landscape has greatly shifted in the last three years. The initial entente between the government and opposition figures has thus evolved. The murder of singer Hachalu Hundessa in June 2020 was a major factor as unrest throughout the country followed.

Demonstrating “just how combustible the situation in Ethiopia is. The merest spark can unleash all these bottled up ethno-nationalist passions” Murithi Mutiga, project director for the Horn of Africa at the International Crisis group, told The New York Times.

In the Amhara region, the emergence of the National movement of Amhara could possibly represent a serious contender to the PP. In other regions, previously marginalised under the TPLF-lead coalition, the election could be an opportunity to renegotiate and perhaps weigh more in the country’s politics.

As for Addis Ababa, the 2005 scenario where the government lost its hold on the capital might repeat itself. Indeed, the ECSJP and newcomers such as Balderas and Enat Party could make for a tight race.

  • ECSJP’s leader, Berhanu Nega was elected mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005 before the EPRDF’s crackdown.
  • Militant politician Eskender Nega (Balderas) was arrested on terror charges. The electoral board has allowed registration of jailed members of the Balderas for True Democracy Party.
  • Historic opponents to the EPRDF, the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party (ECSJP) could also be a challenging force.

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