If there is one thing many would agree on regarding the upcoming general elections in Ethiopia, it would be that it has been a bumpy road so far with repercussions for the future. Since the postponement of the 0riginal 2020 electoral schedules because of the Coronavirus pandemic, various commentators were saying that holding the election would not be a walk in the park given the polarized views propagated by different political interests. An instance was the tit for tat between the federal government in Addis Ababa and the Tigray regional administration in Mekelle. The standoff reached its peak as a result of the postponement of the elections back in 2020. After Mekelle held its regional election and formed what it called a “legitimate” regional government, it started poking its fingers on the government at the center and labeled it illegal. In retaliation, the federal government blocked budget and other links to the upper echelons of the local government structure in Tigray. Marred with such irregularities, the extension of the elections is always highlighted when people talk about the war in Tigray which cost the country diplomatically, financially, and militarily, not to mention the administrative and governance costs incurred.
But the original schedule for August 29, 2020 was not even welcome at the time because of various reasons. Some political parties like the now defunct Ethiopian Democratic Party and the Ethiopian National Movement, and other observers called for the country to prioritize national dialogue and consensus before getting into elections. They argued that elections could exacerbate the fragile situation the country is in. Even those who intended to run in the elections challenged the feasibility of the schedule citing the harsh conditions in the rainy season that starts in June as hurdles to transport election materials and ensure access to some areas. Those with this view called for extending the elections to early October in some parts of the country.
Apart from being a time of heavy rains with logistical and mobility challenges, many were of the view that farmers and people in remote parts of the country would be left out of the elections. The farmers would be toiling on their farmlands while rural dwellers would not have the infrastructure to reach polling stations. That also works for the Board which would have difficulties crossing rivers and navigating muddy unpaved roads. Hence, they asked the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) to move the election D-date to September when the sunny season would begin. But, thanks to the global Coronavirus pandemic, the Board as well as the political parties got one more year to prepare for the sixth general elections in Ethiopia.
The electoral schedule introduced anew by the NEBE at Radisson Blu hotel on December 25, 2020 was welcomed by the attending political parties for two reasons. First, in this round of elections, political parties won’t be required to collect support signatures for every candidate in constituencies they intend to run and second, the schedule addresses some of the concerns raised by political parties related to weather conditions.
They were hopeful that the early June elections would enable enhanced voter turnout especially in rural parts of the country. However, this schedule is not going to be met because of various delays in some major electoral activities. Because of lack of cooperation from regional governments at the early stages of the process, formation of constituency offices and polling stations was delayed. The Board criticized this lack of cooperation by regional governments.
In an interview with The Reporter back in March, Birtukan Midekssa indicated lessons need to be taken from the challenges faced in the electoral process and binding legal frameworks need to be put in place to force regional and federal governments to start their election preparations along with the Board.
Hence, the delay in the formation of constituency offices delayed candidate registrations which were conducted in two phases. The Board conducted candidate registrations for 22 days in two rounds. The registration was made in two rounds because of the logistical challenges in transporting equipment, lack of cooperation from regions as well as security concerns in some parts of the country.
Voter registration faced hurdles in various parts of the country resulting in the extension of the time allotted to May 21, 2021 in areas where voter registration did not start earlier for various reasons. In other parts of the country, lower voter turnouts caused the extension of voter registration to May 14, 2021. Yet, out of the 31 constituencies in the four Wollega zones (West Wollega, East Wollega, Qellem Wollega and Horo Guduru Wollega), 24 are registering voters, and out of the five in the Kamashi zone of the Benshangul Gumuz region, four are not registering voters. Three constituencies in the Oromo Nationality Zone of the Amhara region are conducting late voter registrations. Moreover, 32 constituencies in Afar region (with 8 Parliamentary seats) and 73 constituencies in Somali region (with 23 parliamentary seats) are conducting late voter registrations as a result of security and logistical challenges.
Although political parties were jubilant when the chairwoman of the Board announced plans to extend the elections by two or three weeks on Saturday May 15, 2021, some political parties had concerns regarding the challenges they will face due to lack of commitment to the schedule. For instance, speaking to The Reporter on the impacts of the delays last week, the Communications Head of Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (Ezema), Zelalem Workagegnew said that they were stressed financially apart from disruptions on planned activities.
He said that their campaign plans were disrupted and that they could not properly introduce their programs to the electorate as planned.
But Soliana Shimelis, the Communications Advisor to the Board, told The Reporter on May 20, 2021 on the sidelines of a press conference that political parties did not tell this to the Board during consultations.
Accordingly, the Board decided to postpone Election Day to June 21, 2021 following consultations with political parties, she announced at the press conference. This is excluding areas where voter registration began. Hence, during the remaining time, the Board plans to recruit 106,345 new poll workers in addition to the currently working 138,655 poll workers. This will raise the total number of poll workers to 245,000; five for each polling station, she said.
“As we have more than 160,000 poll workers on our waiting list, recruiting is not a concern for now,” she answered to The Reporter’s questions.
But she admits that this won’t be an easy task given the work needed to locate these registered poll workers and identify areas of surplus and fill in areas of shortages. Apart from this, all the 245,000 poll workers will go under training on tabulation and results management, vote counting and others in four rounds.
Although the Board had prepared detailed logistical and transportation plans and presented it to the government seeking support and cooperation, the rainy season which begins to be heavier starting mid-June would admittedly prove to be a challenge in the process.
According to the National Meteorological Agency of Ethiopia, Summer rain will have impacts in the majority of the country beginning late May. In all of the Wollega zones, Jimma, Ilu Aba Bora, Benshangul Gumuz region various zones, Amhara region’s Northern and Southern Wollo, West Gojam, Bahir Dar and its vicinity, Southern region, Sidama zones, there will be heavy rains.
The rainy season is eventually expected to cause landslides, flooding, overflowing of water into farmlands and destruction of crops in some areas, the Agency stated. Especially, the western, southern, southwestern and western parts of the country will see above average heavy rains.
On the Board’s side, the transportation plan includes using planes, trucks, mules, camels and boats depending on the accessibility of the places of delivery.
“The rainy season is going to be a challenge,” Soliana concedes, adding that this would bring back the questions raised during last year’s schedule announcement.
“It would place more pressure on the board too,” she stated.
But, according to her, the Board has prepared detailed area specific analysis of the rainy season and is preparing to march its transportation plan based on the analysis. In addition to logistical and operational demands the delayed electoral activities present, the Board has also incurred financial costs too.