The time allotted for political parties to campaign officially closed on Wednesday. With voting expected to take place on Monday, the end of campaigning nearly marks the end of the pre-election period. So, it is befitting to assess this period of controversies.
The National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) originally planned to hold the sixth national elections in August 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, led to its postponement. Recently, the NEBE again delayed the elections from June 5 to June 21, 2021 citing logistical issues and low voter registration. Now, however, it seems Ethiopia’s bumpy road to election is coming to an end as voters will cast their votes on Monday, June 21, 2021.
The security and political challenges witnessed in different parts of the country coupled with the aforementioned challenges have had significant impacts on the elections. The country holds its general elections amid ethnic clashes, religious tensions, militia attacks, civil unrest, economic hardships and the ongoing war in Tigray Region.
The June 21 elections for the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) will be Ethiopia’s sixth since the downfall of the Derge regime and the subsequent ascendance of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). It’s the first since the 2018 change in leadership, which invited many politicians in the opposition block back from exile. Even though some argue that the political reform agenda has brought optimism about the country’s future during the past three years, there are also others who believe that new and existing challenges have come to test the potential to conduct credible elections and the democratic trajectory of the country.
The previous five general elections, which were held in 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015 were criticized for not being free, fair, and transparent. Could this year’s general elections be any different? Were the activities of the political parties during the pre-election period freely conducted? Is the political landscape open enough to accommodate differences via dialogue? These are the questions raised by members of opposition parties and analysts that follow the country closely.
Some members in the opposition camp called for an indefinite postponement of the election by citing numerous irregularities and concerns until a national consensus through dialogue has successfully been reached. However, the NEBE continued its preparations, mapping the more than 50,000 polling stations across the nation.
The process of organizing the election has not been smooth for the Board as regional governments delayed preparations of important facilities such as offices and transport of election materials. Moreover, complaints persisted about security concerns as well as intimidation, harassment and detention of candidates and members in various parts of the country.
The ruling party has also been accused of using the state apparatus for campaign activities by the opposition. There were also complaints about there being an uneven ground to the run-up to the elections. The volatile security situation in the country has also been an obstacle to free movement to galvanize support and address voters.
Despite recurring questions for clarity regarding the above issues, the incumbent headed by PM Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has repeatedly stated that his government is committed to making the upcoming elections free and fair.
This is the first electoral test for Abiy since he took Office on a pledge to end repression, although there are already concerns about the integrity of the poll. Several allegations have been forwarded against the incumbent in the opening months of their campaigns.
In Oromia region, for instance, the two potential contenders to the incumbent, namely the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) announced their withdrawal from the election after requests to release their leaderships from prison went unanswered and the party’s offices were closed.
Though the withdrawal of the two was a major event during the pre-election period, other political parties in the opposition camp also fielded numerous complaints against the fairness of the run-up to elections, expressing difficulties to freely move. Among those parties are Balderas for True Democracy (Balderas), National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) and the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA).
EZEMA accused the Oromia regional government and members of the Prosperity Party (PP) in the region of killing its active member, Girma Moges Legesse, a day before the election campaign kicked-off. Girma was shot dead on Sunday, February, 14, 2021, on his way back home.
Apart from this, the re-scheduling of the timetable by the Board was also presented as one of the difficulties. Adding insult to injury, the Board also announced that the election was going to be conducted in two different phases.
Birtukan Mideksa, the chairwoman of the Board, late last week announced that the election in Somali and Harar regions would be postponed, citing irregularities and problems with the printing of ballot papers.
“For some constituencies, the election will be done in a second round on September 6,” Birtukan told journalists. Following this announcement, both the international and local stakeholders expressed their concerns and said it might disrupt the legitimacy of the election.
To this end, National Movement of Amhara (NAMA), Balderas for True Democracy (Balderas), Hiber Ethiopia Democratic Party (Hiber), All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP) and Enat Party (Enat) issued a joint statement voicing their complaints about the electoral process.
The United States is among members of the international community that have expressed their concerns with regard to conducting the election in two phases. The US State Department last week said it was “gravely concerned” about the environment in which the June 21 elections in Ethiopia will be held and urged politicians and other community leaders to denounce violence.
“The exclusion of large segments of the electorate from this contest due to security issues and internal displacement is particularly troubling,” the statement read, adding, “The hardening of regional and ethnic divisions in multiple parts of Ethiopia threatens the country’s unity and territorial integrity. The period following these elections will be a critical moment for Ethiopians to come together to confront these divisions,” the statement by the US read.
Besides the challenges of security and significant political shifts since 2018, the ongoing war in Tigray region provides another difficult backdrop to organize a national election. To this end, many have suggested the Ethiopian government work tirelessly to maintain rule of law and mitigate ethnic and religious tensions.
Analysts warn that the upcoming general elections, instead of serving as the source of a legitimate mandate for PM Abiy, might fuel the already existing mistrust and division in the country.
In this regard, Adem Kasse (PhD) in his latest article published on June 14, 2021 on International Politics and Society (IPS) website said “With currently almost 15 percent of constituencies unable to participate in the June 21 elections due to insecurity and other challenges, and without key opposition parties in Oromia region, which represents almost a third of all electoral constituencies, the elections will be a mere shadow of transition hopes. Hence, there is a danger that the contestation over the forthcoming polls could further exacerbate the already damaged levels of trust between the ruling and key opposition parties, and increase chances of extra-legal political contestations.”
On the other hand, the joint International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI) Limited Election Observation Mission for Ethiopia Election Watch noted that “Ethiopia’s 2021 elections could be an opportunity to build on recent reforms and develop a more inclusive, transparent and accountable governance in the country.”
Such positive remarks about the upcoming Ethiopian elections are mostly followed by concerns. Accordingly, the joint mission stated “However, significant difficulties, including widespread insecurity and ethnic conflicts, delays in NEBE’s candidate and voter registration procedures, poor cooperation from some state governments, boycotts and threats of boycotts by several political parties with broad constituencies, as well as the COVID-19 public health crisis, threaten the ability of voters and parties to participate in the process and, thereby, the potential for credible elections. Serious and concerted efforts prior to Election Day by all stakeholders are necessary to hold meaningful elections and lay the groundwork for national reconciliation and democratic progress beyond the elections.”
Although the international community and local stakeholders are doubtful about the authenticity of the upcoming general elections, PM Abiy during his campaign rally in Jimma downplayed such concerns and once again reiterated to the crowd gathered in Jimma Stadium that his government is determined to stage a peaceful, free, fair and credible election. Before the rally, the PM also tweeted that “The election will be the nation’s first attempt at a free and fair election.”
Despite the existing polarized views towards the authenticity of the elections and its impact on the country’s posterity, citizens will head to polling stations on Monday. Whether this will prove to be an opportunity to strengthen the country’s democratic institutions or a gateway to further crises remains to be seen.