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June 17, 2021

Africa

ETHIOPIA: What to expect from the 21 June elections

BY Anne Frühauf

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( 5 mins)
  • Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party (PP) is widely expected to win the 21 June elections at the parliamentary level and in all the participating regional legislatures.
  • However, the elections will only be partially conducted amid conflict and violence, casting doubt over their credibility and the political transition once hoped for.
  • At worst, the elections could thus exacerbate Ethiopia’s slide into crisis while doing little to reset its deteriorating foreign relations.

An incomplete electoral process

Once billed as Ethiopia’s grand democratic opening, the outlook for the elections – already twice postponed due to the pandemic – is troubled. The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) has announced that voting cannot take place in 110 (20%) of 547 of parliamentary constituencies owing to logistical problems or insecurity. In Tigray, the site of an eight-month-old conflict and a deepening humanitarian catastrophe, no new date for voting has even been set. Another two (of ten) regional states – Harar and Somali regions – will see their votes postponed until 6 September. In addition, areas excluded from the vote include constituencies in Oromia, the most populous state with the largest amount of representatives (178) in the House of Peoples’ Representatives, because of insecurity related to the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA)’s ongoing insurgency. A similar situation prevails in Benishangul Gumuz regional state (9 seats in parliament), where Gumuz militia have been involved in ethnic killings. Overall, the NEBE has registered 37.4mn voters, out of 50mn potential voters. The 21 June ballot will thus represent an incomplete process at best.

Representativity will further be undermined by the exclusion or boycotts of opposition parties. For example, in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s home region of Oromia, the site of major unrest in 2020, the leading opposition parties – Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) – will not participate in the electoral process citing imprisonment of leaders and interference in their campaigns.

In the eyes of the international community, from which Abiy is under growing pressure, the vote’s credibility is also in question. While the prime minister has vowed that the vote will be held peacefully, the US has voiced serious concerns about the process in advance. In May, the EU withdrew its Electoral Observation Mission over a “lack of agreement on key parameters”.

Outcome a foregone conclusion

The election’s preliminary constituency results are to be announced within five days and certified results within 23 days.

In an electoral context of limited competition, Abiy’s Prosperity Party (PP) is widely expected to win the elections by an overwhelming margin, both in the federal parliament and at the regional level. In 2015, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) alliance (which Abiy has since merged into the PP) and allied parties won all the seats in the House of People’s Representatives in polls marred by allegations of repression and irregularities. Given Abiy’s promises of a freer vote, a similarly overwhelming result would only further chip away at his credibility.

One of the few interesting contests this year may be the capital Addis Ababa. Berhanu Nega (Ethiopia Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA)) is running for the mayorship, after his 2005 victory was quashed. He returned from exile under Abiy’s initial opening; EZEMA’s pan-Ethiopian agenda primarily has urban appeal and aligns more with Abiy’s unity agenda. Additional parties – ranging from Oromo nationalists to the Balderas party (led by currently jailed human rights activist Eskinder Nega) – will also compete, making the capital’s poll the country’s single most competitive race, and possibly the site of election- related unrest.

By contrast, the race in Oromia is unlikely to be competitive. Despite a strong groundswell of political opposition to Abiy’s PP, the boycott by the most important Oromo parties may deliver a relatively clean sweep for the PP. Without a boycott, Oromia could conceivably have been one of the few regional states that could have been ruled by the opposition. As a result, the Oromia vote will raise legitimacy questions longer term and could entrench violent political competition.

In the Amhara region (138 parliamentary seats), there has been some speculation that the Amhara PP may face electoral competition from the ethno- nationalist National Movement of Amhara (NAMA), which has a sizeable youth following, and possibly EZEMA. EZEMA, unlike many of the 40 registered opposition parties, is not an ethno-regional party but has broader national goals around constitutional reform. The Abiy administration may point to EZEMA and participating regional parties as evidence of progress towards political liberalization.

It is thus almost assured that the polls will nominally secure a comfortable mandate for the PP and, by extension, for Abiy. But they may do little to bolster the administration’s legitimacy, at a time of deepening regional and ethnic divisions and separatist claims. Instead of consolidating Ethiopia’s political opening, the polls could further entrench resentment and violence. It is also difficult to imagine that the elections will offer a major opportunity to reset relations with Western partners, whose gaze is trained on the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Tigray.

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