After months of setbacks – including twice delayed – Ethiopia got its election.
Originally scheduled for August 2020, it was postponed to June 5 due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was again delayed to allow more time to tackle voter registration issues and other electoral challenges in Africa’s second most populous country, finally taking place on June 21.
On Saturday, the National Electoral Council of Ethiopia (NEBE) announced that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s party had won a landslide victory in its first electoral contest.
Hailing what he called a “historic” election, Abiy said his Prosperity Party (PP) was “happy to have been chosen by the will of the people to rule the country”.
The late completion of the elections is undoubtedly an important moment, although the polls have been overshadowed by an opposition boycott, conflict in the northern Tigray region and instability elsewhere. The NEBE channeled a lot of money and effort into overcoming a myriad of obstacles and organizing an election in a pandemic.
“I think NEBE has done a reasonable job under difficult circumstances and maybe created the kind of institution and precedent that Ethiopia needs,” said Terrence Lyons of the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter school. ‘George Mason University for Peace and Conflict Resolution.
But, at the same time, observers say, one cannot escape how the many restrictions that characterized the election, and which were not related to COVID-19, speak of much wider fault lines crossing Ethiopia. This means that Abiy, who came to power in 2018 following years of anti-government protests, has little reason to savor the victory.
At stake, some say, remains not only Ethiopia’s democratic renewal and break with its authoritarian past, but potentially the country’s survival as a nation-state.
“Far from providing legitimacy to the government and stability to the country, the election – boycotted by opposition parties and undertaken in the midst of war – risks dividing Ethiopia further, with calamitous effect,” Tsedale Lemma said, founder of Addis Standard, an independent monthly in Ethiopia, writes in a editorial in the New York Times on Election Day.
One of the most glaring problems with the election was that it did not include Tigray, which represents 38 seats in the national parliament from 547 constituencies. Home to six million people, the region is bogged down in eight months of catastrophic conflict pitting the federal government and its Eritrean allies against the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF), the former ruling Tigray party that also dominated national politics until Abiy took office.
Many other Ethiopians also did not participate in the elections due to deteriorating security in Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz and Amhara regions, 64 of which have to wait for the second round of voting scheduled for September 6, so that no date has been set. for the elections in Tigray, whose capital, Mekelle, was recently reconquered by forces loyal to the TPLF. Ethiopia’s longtime ally, the United States, which has already spoken on Tigray, warned that excluding so many voters risked undermining confidence in the process.
In addition to what some critics of Abiy say is another failure to hold free and fair elections that fundamentally undermines the legitimacy of the government, the biggest problem at the heart of Ethiopia’s ongoing cuts remains the dispute over the nature of the election. Ethiopian state, which is metastasizing in the form of the Tigray conflict which remains Abiy’s most immediate and greatest challenge, even as his government announced a unilateral ceasefire until September.
Everything is based on the balance of power between the federal center and the regions, and on the role of ethnolinguistic identity groups in the federal system.
“The great unknown for the future is whether Abiy’s victory encourages him to consolidate his power and deploy the kinds of authoritarian means he uses – to stop the opposition, the human rights violations, to deny the negotiations with those he sees as his enemies – or will it allow him to relax, recognize that his tenure is now secure, and seize the opportunity to reach out and begin a more inclusive and grateful process. ‘There are constituencies that have real grievances and oppose him,’ Lyons said, noting that many believe Abiy would go for the first option.
Among the proponents of this more pessimistic view is Matt Bryden, director of Sahan, a research think tank focused on the Horn of Africa. He says the most likely scenario is that Abiy “will claim that the elections were the best in Ethiopia and that he now has an even stronger mandate to pursue his agenda,” including the Tigray War, and “Reshaping Ethiopia into a more centralized autocracy”.
To save Ethiopia’s democratic transition, Abiy must initiate a national dialogue to reform the current federal system that is no longer suited to his goals, argues Tewodrose Tirfe, president of the Amhara Association of America, an advocacy group. of the United States-based Amhara, the second largest ethnic group.
“The system of ethnic federalism is hardly a nation-building project and has clearly become a system that encourages separatism,” says Tewodrose.
“If Ethiopia does not reform the ethnic apartheid system that leaves millions of Ethiopians stateless if they live outside their ‘ethnic homeland’, Ethiopia will not be able to achieve true democracy and take advantage of its enormous natural potential and the size of its population.
But others, like Crisis Group Ethiopia scholar William Davison, argue that while the federal design is flawed, it’s important to remember that the federal system was created in 1994 in response to armed resistance. supported by various liberation fronts towards homogenization tendencies – such as this Abiy displays again.
At the end of 2019, Abiy dissolved the ruling alliance of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which had dominated Ethiopian politics since 1991, merging the ethnic-based regional parties – with the exception of the TPLF which refused to join – in a single national entity: the PP.
Critics have since said that Abiy and his new party seem just as reluctant as the EPRDF to govern in a genuinely democratic fashion. Davison notes that some of the Oromo – Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group – are increasingly infuriated by Abiy’s rule. The two main Oromo opposition parties boycotted the elections against a backdrop of troubles in Oromia.
“The current violent backlash indicates that Abiy and his allies cannot achieve peace and prosperity for all Ethiopians by imposing their vision and their party on Ethiopia using the coercive power of the state.” Davison said, noting that internal conflicts in Ethiopia make the country weaker and more fragile. than it has been for decades.
This is not lost on countries like Sudan and Egypt which have long disagreements with Ethiopia on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project as well as, in the case of Sudan, a territorial border dispute.
Nor is he lost on Eritrea and its longtime ruler. Isaias Afwerki north of Tigray. All the while, on the international stage, Ethiopia risks finding itself increasingly isolated and at odds with its supporters, Bryden says.
The precarious situation in Ethiopia and the region as a whole is compounded, according to Davison, by “extreme toxicity” between the main political actors involved, polarized perspectives and “unwillingness to compromise.”
The election does nothing to change this dynamic. To avoid a pursuit along the current violent trajectory, Davison says, Abiy would have to accept the urgent need to get everyone around the table – an option he has so far shown no sign of being ready. to consider – to find a compromise. It would be a difficult discussion, says Davison, but the alternative for Ethiopia is ‘much, much worse’, with others like Bryden agreeing that there is a real risk that Ethiopia will fragment further and even slide into state failure.
“I’m still reluctant to predict Ethiopia’s end because it looked pretty bad in early 2018 as well, and the state often manages to cope with crisis after crisis,” Lyons said. “But it doesn’t look good.”