Ethiopians cast ballots in delayed election against backdrop of Tigray conflict


Show caption A member of the national electoral board marks a voter’s finger at a polling station in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photograph: AFP/Getty Ethiopia Ethiopians cast ballots in delayed election against backdrop of Tigray conflict Frontrunner Abiy Ahmed needs popular mandate to bolster his grip on power amid growing criticism Jason Burke Africa correspondent and agencies in Addis Ababa Mon 21 Jun 2021 11.58 BST Share on Facebook

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Voters have begun casting their ballots in delayed elections in Ethiopia that supporters of the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, say are proof of his commitment to democracy and critics warn could be the launchpad for consolidation of an increasingly authoritarian rule.

The national and regional polls take place against a background of a gruelling military conflict in the northern Tigray region, the looming prospect of a famine, rising ethnic violence and deep economic problems.

Campaigning has been short. Abiy, in power since 2018, told a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters last week at his only rally that Ethiopia would show a sceptical world that he could unite the fractious country.

“The whole world is saying we will fight [each other] but we will show them differently,” Abiy told a packed stadium in the western city of Jimma. “The forces that saved Ethiopia from collapsing will turn the Horn of Africa into Africa’s power hub.”

More than 37 million of Ethiopia’s 109 million people are registered to vote, choosing from 46 parties for parliament. The electoral board says more candidates are running this time than in any previous vote. At the last election in 2015, the ruling coalition and its allies won all 547 seats.

Billboards of the Ethiopian PM, Abiy Ahmed, and Berhanu Nega, the head of the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party, in Addis Ababa. Photograph: Baz Ratner/Reuters

“This election is different,” said Milyon Gebregziabher, a 45-year-old travel agent voting in the centre of the capital, Addis Ababa. “There are a number of parties to choose from. In the past there was just one, we did not have the luxury of choice.

Yordanos Berhanu, a 26-year-old accountant, said the election was part of a hopeful future for the country.

Once votes are counted, national MPs will elect the prime minister, who is head of government, as well as the president – a largely ceremonial role.

Abiy, a 44-year-old former military intelligence specialist, was appointed head of the ruling coalition in an internal deal and needs a popular mandate to bolster his power amid growing international and domestic criticism.

The prime minister’s newly formed Prosperity party is the frontrunner by a considerable margin in a crowded field of candidates mostly from smaller, ethnically based parties. Billboards with his party’s lightbulb symbol adorn the capital.

Just over a fifth of parliamentary constituencies are not voting owing to logistical problems, low-level violence or the war in Tigray.

Federal troops invaded Tigray to depose the ruling party there after attacks on government military bases. Though the Tigray People’s Liberation Front was ousted within six weeks, the conflict has become a guerrilla war. This weekend there were reports of renewed fighting. No date has been set for voting in the region.

Abiy appeared to usher in a new era of openness after decades of repressive rule when he pushed through sweeping political and economic changes in his first 18 months and won the Nobel peace prize for ending a lengthy war with neighbouring Eritrea.

Villagers wait to vote outside a polling station. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty Images

However, as ethnic and political tensions rose across Ethiopia, a patchwork of communities and linguistic groups theoretically united under a federal system, authorities have repeatedly cracked down, jailing dissidents and using force to crush protest.

Many parties in Oromiya, the most populous region, are boycotting the polls, alleging government intimidation.

Amnesty International has warned the government is using a revised anti-terrorism law and new hate speech legislation to “arrest people and keep them in prison for a long time”.

In Bahir Dar, the capital of the north-western Amhara region that neighbours Tigray, voters said peace and economic growth were the priorities. “No matter who wins, we want peace,” said 25-year-old jobseeker Mirkuz Gashaw.

Whatever the results of this week’s poll, Abiy will have to deal with a looming economic crisis and a famine. The country faces an acute lack of foreign currency and this year alone owes about $2bn to its creditors. Prices are soaring but growth is forecast at just 2% this year, down from 10% before the coronavirus pandemic.

Billene Seyoum, the prime minister’s spokeswoman, has described the election as a chance for citizens to “exercise their democratic rights” and accused international media of mounting a “character assassination of the prime minister”.

Western diplomats and humanitarian agencies say 350,000 people in Tigray are suffering from famine, with several million more threatened by acute lack of food. The threat was entirely “manmade”, one British official said.

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