Elections called in a Contested Ethiopia

Elections called in a Contested Ethiopia

Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/meeting-addis-ababa-ethiopia-hall-83519/

The political crisis in the North of Ethiopia is currently one of the notorious humanitarian disasters in global affairs. The tragedy and ferocity of the conflict has sometimes distracted from it’s trigger: the delay of the 2020 federal and regional elections. Now, one year since their postponement, Ethiopians head to the polls to contest the leading Prosperity Party’s grip on power. Whether this will prove to be an opportunity to strengthen the country’s democratic institutions or a gateway to further crises remains to be seen.

Elections in a Contested Ethiopia

In the last month, political parties in Ethiopia launched their campaigns ahead of the June 5th elections. This comes after the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) outlined the new campaigning timetable for the federal and regional ballots following their suspension in August 2020 in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

Despite the postponement of the election, The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the former reigning coalition partner in Addis Ababa, went ahead with elections in the northern Tigray region in September 2020. The Ethiopian Prime-Minister, Abiy Ahmed, declared the elections illegal. Shortly after in early November, the TPLF responded by launching a series of attacks on federal garrisons in Tigray.

Since these attacks, Tigray has been swept up in endless conflict. Adiy’s government ordered Ethiopia’s National Defense Force (ENDF) to occupy Tigray whilst disabling the region’s telecommunications infrastructure and denying external humanitarian access. In December the federal government declared victory, lifted the telecommunications blackout and transitioned to a strategy of “re-building the region of Tigray“.

The resumption of Tigray’s communication services has prompted a cascade of allegations concerning the indiscriminate violence deployed by various parties, as national and international media gained access to personal accounts of the local population’s experiences. The ENDF has since been accused of  burning Tigrayan settlements to the ground and mass civilian targeting.

Especially notable is the widely-reported massacre in the historic Tigrayan city of Aksum, orchestrated by soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea who have also launched operations against the TPLF. Adiy’s government denied reports of Eritrean interference, but senior ENDF officers have since suggested the Eritrean forces have in fact entered Tigray, albeit without an invitation from the federal government.

Despite the government’s assertions of authority over the region, the NEBE has excluded the Tigray state from the June 5th election on the grounds of security concerns. NEBE withdrew the TPLF’s status as a registered political party in January, meaning the organisation will not be allowed to field any candidates for any upcoming ballots.

Ethiopia’s sixth federal election occurs against the backdrop of heightened ethnic tensions and internal conflict. The current political climate is in conflict with the  narrative of the Adiy’s leading Prosperity Party (PP), which as a reformist, pan-Ethiopian party, endorses a vision of a shared national identity. Political commentators have noted the PP’s messaging is therefore under particular scrutiny. An editorial in one of Ethiopia’s prominent newspapers suggested the PP had failed to deliver unity, and the “aspiration of creating one political and economic community remains a pipe dream owing to the proliferation of undemocratic attitudes and bad governance”.

Opposition Parties Voice Concern

Several allegations have been made against the government in the opening month of their campaigns. In the Oromia region, the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) party has announced its withdrawal from the election after requests to release their leadership from prison have been denied by Addis Ababa, and party offices were forcibly closed by the government. Imprisoned OFC leaders ended a 40 day hunger strike in March, as Bekele Gerba, Jawar Mohammed, Dejene Tafa and Hamza Adane protested against the harassment of their party’s members.

Another Oromo nationalist party, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), refused announced to take part in the 2021 regional election, citing similar barriers to participation as the OFC. The government has refuted the OLF & OFC’s allegations, claiming that a thorough investigation found most allegations to be “baseless”.

The OLF’s declaration of withdrawal has been internally challenged . A spokesperson for one faction suggested the party’s chairperson had made the declaration unilaterally and that the party membership was “working to convene a general assembly and elect new leadership” – a move encouraged by NEBE. However, even if the party’s executive is reformed, it is unlikely the party will have time to register candidates for the June 5th vote.

In addition, the withdrawal of ethnonationalist parties from the election process marks a worrying divergence from the nonviolent politics that the upcoming election was intended to epitomise. The OLF’s militant wing has been accused of launching a series of attacks across Ethiopia in the past several months. In the first week of March, gunmen associated with the OLF are alleged to have murdered 29 people, including young children, after storming a church in Oromia. If ethnonationalist parties continue to disengage from nonviolent political process, they may revert to political violence to express their constituents grievances.

Some pan-Ethiopian parties have also criticised the PP’s conduct in the early months of the campaigning calendar. The Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA) opposition party, which has previously maintained a strong  relationship with Adiy’s party, accused PP members of orchestrating the assassinations of two of its members.

Whilst some parties have withdrawn from the election, many opposition leaders are welcoming the opportunity to contest the PP’s dominance in June, albeit, with caution. Chief of Political Affairs at the Balderas for True Democracy party, Getaneh Balcha, suggested the election was an opportunity to “challenge the incumbent to live up to its promises”. The chairman of the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) encouraged the PP to respect the vote and is encouraged by the election process so far, despite staunch criticism for the PP’s alleged complicity in anti-Amhara massacres last year.

June 5th: A Prospect of Crisis?

Ethiopia’s delicate security situation means voters face considerable threats when they visit the polls on election day. Currently, the NEBE has voiced concerns over the lack of adequate security provisions in 98 of the 673 voting constituencies.

40 of the unprotected ballot areas are in the Amhara region neighbouring Tigray. Amhara militias joined ENDF forces in their intervention in Tigray, and have been accused of behaviour that amounts to the ethnic cleansing of western Tigray in a US government report. Whilst Amhara regional ‘Special Force’ militia continue to engage in western Tigray, they leave ballot stations, voters and candidates vulnerable to subversion and coercion.

NEBE’s security concerns come as fighting in the Tigray intensifies, in spite of the government’s assertions of victory. The TPLF’s counterattack is strengthened by the renewed mobilisation of young Tigrayans over the past month, taking up arms in response to the violent abuses against their communities by Eritrean and Ethiopian government forces. Election day voters could become a target for the TPLF fighters as intercommunal violence between Amhara and Tigray groups worsens.

A report published by The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission in March has found that gender-based violence remains central to  Ethiopia’s current conflict. The report outlines the increased likelihood of violence against women engaging in the electoral process and called on the government, political parties and civil service organisations to commit to promoting the participation of women in the election. Guaranteeing the security of women on June 5th is especially difficult given that law enforcement personnel are identified by the report as actively participating in the harassment and violence against women.

With the election less than three months away, NEBE has a limited amount of time to work with partners to find security solutions that protect the voters from violence from state and non-state actors on June 5th and throughout the electoral cycle.

Free and Fair?

NEBE has so far confirmed the registration of 200 international observers to witness the upcoming vote including the African Union, European Union and United Nations. Regardless of the numbers of observers however, it is inevitable that a PP victory will be contested by opposition parties whilst their leadership, who represent the most tangible political threat to the PP’s dominance in the election, languish in prison.

Should opposition parties, many of which are former insurgent groups, continue to experience barriers to participating in the election, recourse to violence is likely. The TPLF’s absence in the June 5th election is also likely to prolong the conflict by removing mechanisms that could provide Tigrayans with the non-violent means of challenging the central government.

This election adds pressure to Ethiopia’s already-strained democratic institutions and risks destabilising the precarious peaceful status in areas of Ethiopia not already touched by the Tigray conflict. The election results, and the methods parties employ to wage their campaigns, carry an enormous burden. They hold the potential to strengthen Ethiopia’s democracy, or plunge the country into deeper chaos.


Categories: Africa, Politics

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