On July 10th, Abiy Ahmed won 410 of 436 seats in the Ethiopian Parliament to secure his role as Prime Minister for another five years. Abiy tweeted that it was “a historically inclusive election,” even though one-fifth of Ethiopia’s population did not participate due to “insecurity and logistical problems,” according to the BBC. As fighting, famine, and frantic flight rage on in the Tigray region, many ask why Abiy held the election now and what his power means for Ethiopia’s future.
Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister in 2018, immediately making bold political moves that framed him as a progressive: he increased Ethiopian media freedom, released detained journalists and protesters, and bolstered female empowerment, increasing his cabinet to almost 50% women. However, his most prominent act was signing a peace agreement with the President of Eritrea, ending sixteen years of tension at their border. For this act and “his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation,” Abiy received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. Unfortunately, while no one disputes his past actions, Abiy is no longer a benevolent symbol of peace, and many of his early efforts have failed to create real change.
After his 2018 election, Abiy consolidated power, uniting parties from a previous coalition to form his Prosperity Party. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) refused to join. This past September, the TPLF began taking control of areas throughout Tigray; Abiy promptly deployed government troops and aerial bombs in what the Center for Foreign Relations called a “law and order operation.” First Post reports that over two million people have been displaced since the fighting began, potentially creating a regional refugee crisis. Although a ceasefire was declared and soldiers removed in June preceding the election, violence continues throughout Tigray amidst electoral tension.
The original Ethiopian election date was delayed from August 2020 due to Covid-19. Many argued that this illegally extended Abiy’s term. Now, with coronavirus still ravaging Ethiopia and war in Tigray, Abiy’s decision to hold an election seems inconsistent and appears another power grab. In addition to scheduling misconduct, the election process was unfair. According to the BBC, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission reported that “some constituencies experienced ‘improper arrests’, voter intimidation, and ‘harassment’ of observers and journalists.” Those who managed to vote faced limited options: many opposition parties had boycotted, been blocked from running, or dropped out due to insufficient preparation time.
U.S. State Department spokesman Samuel Warburg concluded the election “was neither ‘free’ nor ‘fair,’” according to Egypt Today, and the U.S. has urged Ethiopians to unite against violence. The E.U. criticized Ethiopia’s inability to hold independent elections but has yet to condemn the situation officially. Other world powers who have remained silent, including the U.K. and the U.N., must rapidly denounce the election to uphold fair and democratic elections publicly.
Although incumbent rulers often hold immense power, they must be prohibited from making laws regarding elections in which they are involved. Instead, Ethiopia should appoint an independent commission that sets election dates, verifies candidates, and ensures voting stations are secure. For this election, the African Union or an Ethiopian organization should intervene to guarantee voting occurs in excluded regions; the international community should also consider Abiy an interim ruler until all votes are counted.
Since he remains PM, however, Abiy must end the fighting in the Tigray region and prioritize peace and protection of Ethiopia’s citizens.
Finally, international humanitarian organizations should step in to verify that Abiy upholds his original promises. Freedom of speech, assembly, and expression must be protected in Ethiopia alongside voting rights in fair elections; if these crumble, it will not matter who is in power as disarray will throw the country into turmoil.
“Elections [themselves were] never a sign for democracy or political reform,” according to Samuel Warburg. Within the last year, countries believed to be democratic have held elections that do not protect the popular vote or even the right to vote. Instead, elections are being used as symbolic events to extend the power of those in office while providing them unfounded legitimacy. As a result, democracy as we know it is at risk. In Ethiopia, the threat of even greater national conflict looms amid ethnic cleansing and suppressed freedoms.
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