On Monday, 21 June Ethiopia held its first election since the 2015 House of People’s Representatives election. It was also Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s first test of voter support since he assumed office in 2018, following the resignation of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. This general election was originally supposed to be held in August 2020, but became delayed twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, elections were not held in every region for various reasons. The Tigray region will not participate because fighting in the area resulted in the original administration being ousted, and an interim one taking over.
Election dates for Tigray will not be decided until the interim government opens election offices. 64 other constituencies also postponed elections until September, citing defects and irregularities in ballot forms. Overall, about 37 million citizens were registered to vote in the June election, out of Ethiopia’s total population of 110 million. According to the National Election Board of Ethiopia, over 40 parties are participating in this year’s election. Most of those candidates are running at regional levels, and there are few opposition parties at the federal level. The Prosperity Party currently holds 512 seats in the House of People’s Representatives, while all the other parties running hold none.
Prime Minister Ahmed currently faces two challengers: Berhanu Nega from the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party, and Merera Gudina from the Medrek party. Berhanu Nega is the only opposition leader with a national profile taking part in this year’s elections. Participating opposition parties cite major crackdowns from the government, that have interrupted their plans in preparing for the polls. Some parties, like the Oromo Liberation Front have pulled out of the elections because several of their leaders have been jailed, and the government allegedly closed their offices. The Oromo Federalist Congress also announced they were “forced” to pull out of the election after their leader, Jawar Mohammad was arrested in March. Other parties, like the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, were banned from running altogether.
With the dropouts and bans against certain parties, about 42 opposition parties are still running. This could lead to a very fractured vote amongst anti-government voters. Thus, despite Abiy Ahmed waging war against his people and his failure to quell rising violence between ethnic groups, his party appears to have a clear shot at winning the House elections. Results from this round are expected about ten days after the polls close. However, many opposition groups made it clear they are not afraid to challenge the fairness of the election, even as citizens cast their ballots. The Ethiopian election board received reports from at least two regions of opposition observers allegedly being chased away from polling stations. These reports, along with the two hundred complaints filed by the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party, Nega’s party, bring into question election integrity and the prime minister’s promises to eliminate government corruption.
The current ruling party is the Prosperity Party (PP), led by Abiy Ahmed. It formed in 2019, following his election to unite Ethiopia’s ethnic groups and move its politics away from ethnic divisions. According to Ahmed, the “[P]rosperity Party is committed to strengthening and applying a true Federal system which recognizes the diversity and contributions of all Ethiopians.” Before the PP, the ruling party was the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). It was comprised of four political parties: Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM). The EPRDF held power following the overthrow of the communist party People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in 1991, until 2019. In 2019, Prime Minister Ahmed dissolved the EPRDF and the Prosperity Party took its place. The ADP, ODP, and SEPDM joined the Prosperity Party, but the TPLF refused to join.
Since the disbandment of the EPRDF, the TPLF has been a strong opponent against Prime Minister Ahmed. In January of 2021, the National Election Board of Ethiopia dissolved the party’s registration entirely. The TPLF organized its regional elections after the official ones were canceled, due to concerns about COVID-19 in 2020. The elections were boycotted by other Tigray region parties and Prime Minister Ahmed said the federal government would not recognize the results. He also banned foreign journalists from traveling to Tigray to cover them. Tensions between the TPLF and the federal government continued to rise, following a government and military claim that the TPLF committed treason against the Ethiopian National Defense Force. This led to the current civil conflict in the region which, according to the United Nations (UN), has resulted in over 90% of Tigray’s population needing food aid. According to the UN’s Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, over 300,000 people are in Phase 5, catastrophe, and over 1.5 million people are in Phase 4, emergency. These numbers will continue to worsen without proper food aid.
The Ethiopian government currently faces accusations from humanitarian workers and aid organizations that its National Defense Force and their allies, forces from the Amhara region and Eritrea, have blocked aid from reaching those who need it. There are also reports of ENDF and Eritrea forces raping women and children, and violently attacking civilians, in some cases beating them to death or shooting them as they leave their homes. The labeling of the TPFL as a terrorist organization puts a halt to any possible peace talks, and gives government forces free rein to capture, arrest, or kill TPLF party members. These actions stand in stark opposition to Prime Minister Ahmed’s promises of stability and peace during his election. The reason he dispersed the EPRDF was to create unity across ethnic groups and reduce social fragmentation. However, his actions in Tigray show the opposite effect.
The ethnic violence in the Tigray region and some parts of the Benishangul-Gumuz region signal Abiy Ahmed’s failure to quell violence between ethnic groups- something he promised was possible when creating the Prosperity Party. Ahmed made major sweeping economic and political reforms when he first came into office. He lifted bans on political parties and media outlets, released thousands of political prisoners, and created a peace agreement for a decades-old conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. However, his use of government intimidation to silence opposition groups and rights activists has not gone unnoticed.
Ahmed’s attacks against the TPLF and Tigrayan citizens have resulted in a humanitarian crisis that is hurting hundreds of thousands of people. This election is important for him because, while it appears unlikely, he could lose his seat. Another concern with this election is his plans for building infrastructure and speeding the electrification of Ethiopia. This includes building a four billion dollar hydropower dam on the Blue Nile, one of the main tributaries of the Nile river. Egypt and Sudan do not like this plan, as they fear Ethiopia will control it, and do not want to risk losing their vital resources.
There is a lot at stake in this election. Not only is Prime Minister Ahmed facing the voters for the first time since his 2018 election, but the possibility of peace within the country also depends on who is elected. Ahmed denies any problems in Tigray, despite all the evidence, and has made little progress with the smaller conflicts in Benishangul-Gumuz. Should he be reelected, it seems unlikely fighting will stop any time soon. Ahmed’s re-election could also determine the result of tensions surrounding a possible dam on the Blue Nile. Given Ahmed’s past in conflict resolution, contrasted with his current stance on the violence in his own country, tensions between the three countries may end peacefully, or in conflict. Nevertheless, one thing is for certain: no matter who wins this election, parties will challenge the election results. This will have a major impact on Ethiopia and its surrounding countries.