After months of setbacks – including the delay twice – Ethiopia has had its election.
Originally scheduled for August 2020, it has been postponed until June 5 due to the coronavirus pandemic. It has been delayed again to allow more time to address voter registration problems and other electoral challenges in Africa’s second most populous country, eventually taking place on 21 June.
On Saturday, the Ethiopian National Electoral Council (NEBE) announced that the party of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had won a landslide victory in its first electoral contest.
Hailing what he described as a “historic” election, Abiy said his Prosperity Party (PP) was “happy to have been chosen by the will of the people to administer the country”.
The late conclusion of the election is undoubtedly a significant moment, even when polls have been overshadowed by a boycott of the opposition, conflict in the northern Tigray region and instability elsewhere. The NEBE has channeled a lot of money and efforts to overcome a myriad of obstacles and hold elections during the pandemic.
“I think NEBE has done a reasonable job in difficult circumstances and may have created the kind of institutions and precedents that Ethiopia needs,” Terrence Lyons told the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School of Peace and Conflict Resolution. George Mason University.
But, at the same time, observers say, it is impossible to overcome how many restrictions that characterized the election, and which were not related to COVID-19, speak to much larger fault lines circulating throughout the country. Ethiopia. It means that Abiy, who went to power in 2018 after years of anti-government protests, has little reason to claim victory.
At stake, some say, is not only Ethiopia’s democratic renaissance and rupture from 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, elections – boycotted by opposition parties and undertaken in the midst of a war – are likely to pull Ethiopia further, to disastrous effect,” Tsedale Lemma , the founder of Addis Standard, an independent monthly magazine in Ethiopia, wrote in a op-ed in the New York Times on election day.
“Reformulation of Ethiopia”
One of the most glaring issues with the election was that it did not include Tigray, who represents 38 seats in the national parliament from 547 constituencies. Home to six million people, the region was torn down in eight months catastrophic conflict pitting the federal government and its Eritrean allies against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Tigray’s former governing party that also used to dominate national politics until Abiy took his place. .
Many other Ethiopians did not participate in the election due to worsening security in the Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz and Amhara regions, from which 64 constituencies are expected to wait for the second round of voting on September 6, while there was no set date for the polls in Tigray, as the capital, Mekelle, was recently retaken by forces loyal to TPLF. The long-term ally of Ethiopia, the United States, which has already talked about Tigray, has prevented the exclusion of so many voters at risk of undermining confidence in the process.
In addition to what some critics of Abiy say is another failure to provide free and fair elections that fundamentally undermines the legitimacy of the government, the biggest problem at the heart of the ongoing cuts in Ethiopia remains the dispute over nature of the Ethiopian state, which metastasizes in the form of the Tigray conflict that remains Abiy’s most immediate and biggest challenge, even when his government announced a unilateral ceasefire until September.
It all depends on the balance of power between the federal center and the regions, and the role of ethnolinguistic identity groups in the federal system.
“The big question ahead is whether Abiy’s victory will encourage him to consolidate power and use the kinds of authoritarian means he used – arresting opposition, violating human rights, refusing negotiations with those he perceives. his enemies – or allow them to relax, acknowledge that their mandate is now secure, and take the opportunity to reach out and begin a process that is more inclusive and recognize that there are constituencies that have real grievances and oppose them , ”says Lyons, noting that many believe Abiy will lean towards the first option.
Proponents of this more pessimistic view include Matt Bryden, director of Sahan, a research center focused on the Horn of Africa. He says the most likely scenario is Abiy “will declare that the elections have been the best in Ethiopia and that he now has an even stronger mandate to pursue his agenda,” including the war in Tigray, and “reshape the Ethiopia as a more centralized autocracy. “
Saving the democratic transition in Ethiopia depends on Abiy urging a national dialogue to reform the current federal system that is no longer fit for purpose, says Tewodrose Tirfe, president of the Amhara Association of America, a defense-based group in the United States for the Amhara, the second largest Ethiopian ethnic group.
“The system of ethnic federalism is not just a nation-building project and has obviously become a system that encourages separatism,” says Tewodrose.
If Ethiopia does not reform the system of ethnic apartheid that leaves millions of Ethiopians stateless if they live outside their ‘ethnic homeland’, Ethiopia will not be able to realize true democracy and take advantage of its enormous potential. natural resources and the size of the population. “
But others, such as Crisis Group Ethiopia specialist William Davison, argue that even if the federal concept contains flaws, it is important to remember that the federal system was created in 1994 in response to armed resistance supported by various liberation fronts to homogenization tendencies – of that type Abiy looks back.
In late 2019, Abiy dissolved the leading alliance of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) that had dominated Ethiopian politics since 1991, uniting ethnic-based regional parties – outside the TPLF that refused to adheres – in a single national entity: the PP.
Since then, critics have said that Abiy and his new party seem just as disillusioned as the EPRDF towards the government in a truly democratic way. Davison notes that some of the Oromo – the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia – are increasingly incensed by Abiy’s governance. The two main opposition Oromo parties boycotted the elections amid a rise agitation in Oromia.
“The current violent resumption indicates that Abiy and his allies cannot achieve peace and prosperity for all Ethiopians by imposing their vision and party on Ethiopia using the coercive power of the state,” Davison says, noting that the internal struggle in Ethiopia leaves the country weaker and more fragile. which has been for decades.
This is not lost on the tastes of Sudan and Egypt that have long existed disagreements with Ethiopia over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project and also, in the case of Sudan, a territorial border dispute.
He is also lost in Eritrea and its longtime governor Isaias Afwerki north of Tigray. All the while, on the international stage, Ethiopia may find itself increasingly isolated and at odds with its supporters, says Bryden.
The precarious situation for Ethiopia and the wider region is exacerbated, Davison says, by the “extreme toxicity” between the main political actors involved, polarized perspectives and “lack of willingness to compromise.”
The election does nothing to change this dynamic. To avoid a long continuation of the current violent trajectory it takes, Davison says, Abiy would have to accept the terrible need to bring everyone around the table – an option he has so far shown no sign of being willing to consider – to put in place. dance a compromise. It would be a difficult discussion, Davison says, but the alternative for Ethiopia is “far, far away,” with others like Bryden agreeing that there is a real risk that Ethiopia will fragment further and even move toward the failure of the State.
“I am still reluctant to predict the end of Ethiopia, as it looked pretty bad even in early 2018, and the State often manages to confuse crisis after crisis,” says Lyons. “But it doesn’t look good.”