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Tigray elections: beyond the polls

Tigray elections: beyond the polls

From the time when the general election was postponed due to the global pandemic, COVID-19, the Tigrian People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has been insisting that the federal government stick to the original schedule and carry out the general election. The subsequent June decision by the joint Houses to postpone the polls prompted Tigray’s ruling party and State Council to unilaterally undertake regional elections.

Even though the disagreement between the federal government and the Tigray region escalated mainly due to election issues; lack of trust in the new leadership, lack of clear transitional framework, ideological disputes and the unifying of the ruling coalition party into a single party, were among the several fundamental differences that led to the current tension between the two. 

TPLF was among the first groups to oppose the extension of the mandate of the current executive and legislative bodies without an election, due to the pandemic. This was followed by the TPLF announcing that the election should be held in its due time before the end of September. The TPLF argued the extension granted by the House of Federation (HoF) amounts to issuing an unconstitutional lease on the terms of those in office. 

On June 17, 2020, the Tigray regional government formed an electoral commission to supervise the organization and procedures of the awaited elections. This was the first executive step taken to hold the election, despite fierce opposition from the central government. On August 4, 2020, the HoF called on TPLF to immediately call off the electoral process. TPLF refused and announced it will go ahead with its election. 

Under such strenuous conditions, the regional election took place on September 9, 2020. It was not a surprise for many, to say the least. The move was preceded by other events, especially during the recent months, that affirmed the serious rift in the relationship between the TPLF and the federal government led by PM Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and his newly formed Prosperity Party (PP). 

The election is a first for Tigray in terms of substance and process. As a process, the willingness of the Tigray government to negotiate with opposition parties on issues such as ratifying new electoral systems or procedures and a new code of ethics were generally commended by commentators. Equally, the outcome of this bargaining process has been lauded. The way the election commission was chosen, a mixed electoral system was introduced, and the fair division of financial and media resources among political parties were all viewed positively, by commentators.

This progress in democratization in Tigray is remarkable considering the region’s poor democratic record, including deeply flawed elections, and a single-party politics which has been on display. In addition to expanding the political space, commendable efforts towards building democratic institutions have been made.

To this effect, 2.7 million people who were registered to vote in the election, headed to 2,672 polling stations, to cast their vote. According to the commissioner of the regional electoral commission, the turnout for the election was more than 98 percent. 

However, there were also some groups that questioned the fairness of the election. Nathanael Tilahun, an Assistant Professor of Law at Coventry University, is among those skeptics.

“It is possible that the actual election process might have been relatively free. But, that is a very narrow angle to measure whether an election is free and fair. TPLF has been suppressing all types of dissent for the past several years, the major critical opposition parties were either barred from participating in the election or they chose not to because of the relentless repression they were under,” He told The Reporter via an email interview.

“Also, it is making a mockery of democracy to think that it could result in one party taking all-except-one seat in region council; was it really a ‘free election’? So, the legitimacy of the election as a democratic exercise is poor, because it did not take place in an environment of political openness. In my view, this election wasn’t a vote for political leadership anyway, but a vote for affirming self-determination,” he said, questioning the objectives of the regional election.

Similarly, one of the parties that took part in the regional election and able to garner some 93,495 votes, the National Congress of Great Tigray (Baytona), said that even though the pre-election period was promising for the realization of building a democratic and an all-inclusive political system in Tigray, the outcome of the election was against the anticipated hopes, and for this, the party blames the cadres of TPLF.

Even though the regional ruling party, TPLF, was supposed to play its leadership role as a leading party in the region, to ensure the development of a democratic system, it rather was “busy in blaming and labeling our members and supporters,” which brings a huge deficit in the process of the election, the statement of the party issued on September 17, 2020 said. Apart from such scam the party further said that its legal observers were denied entry into election stations despite having showed their permits granted to them by the regional election commission.

“Cadres of the ruling party were engaged in providing confusing and false information. Such actions include going home-to-home and telling voters it is impossible to elect other than the bee sign (which is the official election sign of TPLF). If they chose another one it is going to be inconsequential,” said the Party.

In the statement, the party, regarding the only seat which it has gained in the regional council, said that if the allocation of the seat is based on a calculation, the party does not believe that it will get any seat. However, since we respect the vote of the public, and if there are other legal mechanisms to interpret the law and sort-out that the lone seat in the council belongs to us, then we will accept the seat.

Apart from this, Kidane Amene, chairman of the Baytona told The Reporter that, his party is “Sandwiched” in relation to the lone seat in the council. “If we say we don’t accept the seat, TPLF will launch a smear campaign against us, like it did on CUD in the 2005 election and portray the party as not respecting the decision of the public. On the other hand, if we accept the seat, it is against the modalities of calculation of the vote. Therefore, we are torn apart between the two,” the chairman said.    

According to Kidane, the pre-election period was relatively inclusive. The allocation of air time to all political parties to reach the public, the distribution of finance and other related activities, were conducted smoothly. However, different measures taken by the TPLF on election dates and post-election period, makes the entire process defective, which brings a huge “political bankruptcy” on TPLF.

One of the major events that took place once the Tigray region pursued the election unilaterally was to amend the existing electoral system. To this effect, it can be remembered that the Council of the Tigray National Regional State, conducting its 9th emergency meeting on August 6, 2020 amended Article 42, Sub-Article 2 of the Constitution. The article deals with the electoral system of the region. According to the amendment, the electoral system has shifted to a mixed electoral system from the previous majority vote electoral system.

Accordingly, while 80 percent of the seats are allotted to the existing majority vote system, the remaining 20 percent would be allotted to the new system. To this effect, the number of seats at the regional council would increase from its current 152 seats to 190 seats, where the parties in the region will vie for a majority vote and mixed one, subsequently.

The rationale behind amending the existing electoral system into a hybrid, according to the vice president of the region, was to incorporate dissenting views in the Council and to entertain plurality of ideas. However, the result of the election does not prove the case; rather it remained the same with the TPLF taking 100 percent of the 80 percent, which is 152 seats and the 31 seats from the remaining 32 seats.

To this effect, many have said that the results registered in Tigray’s election showcases that changing the electoral system per se is not a guarantee to establish a democratic system and help the opposition obtain a considerable amount of the seats. Henceforth, many have suggested that the process of building a democratic system should first and foremost starts with the political environment that would allow plurality of ideas and create a level playing field where all actors could be represented fairly.