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Ethiopian election expected to deepen rifts

Martina Schwikowski
May 11, 2021

Ethiopians will vote in June to elect a new parliament. But voter registration is patchy, and opposition parties plan to boycott the ballot. Experts fear that simmering ethnic tensions will escalate.

Ethiopian soldiers cheering and dancing
Fears are growing of more violence spurred on by elections Image: Ethiopian News Agency/AP/picture alliance

On June 5, Ethiopians will elect a new parliament, as well as regional and municipal councils. The polls were originally scheduled to take place on August 29 last year but were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Peaceful elections seem increasingly unlikely in this conflict-ravaged East African nation, where more than 80 nationalities and ethnic groups reside and unresolved grievances persist. 

"The big problem is the level of violence we're seeing across the country at this time, which looks like it is increasing in the run-up to the elections in early June," William Davison of the International Crisis Group told DW.

This applies particularly to the regional states of Benishangul-Gumuz and Oromia, the latter of which is the largest of Ethiopia's nine administrative regions, and where — according to Davison — insurgent activity has increased.

It may prove difficult to hold elections in areas where the security situation is fragile, Davison said. Violence is prone to escalate through increased attacks by ethnic militias.

Party alliances in Ethopia can run along ethic linesImage: Balderas/NAMA

Opposition boycott 

There are also logistical issues. More than 56 million citizens eligible to vote are not registered to do so.

Ethiopia's electoral board was initially unable to carry out voter registration in western Oromia, according to Davison. Security issues also led to massive problems in Benishangul-Gumuz.

"There is a civil war going on in Tigray, there is a state of emergency. So there will be no elections in Tigray," Davison said.

"There have also been delays in voter registration in the Afar and Somali regions, where there was recent territorial dispute between regional paramilitary forces."

As a result of the volatile situation, some opposition parties are boycotting the elections. 

Elections in fall 2020 were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemicImage: DW/M. Hailesilassie

Electoral success 'in doubt'

The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) withdrew, claiming that the detention of some OLF leaders — not to mention the shutting down of their offices — had made the party's work impossible.

Former rebels from the OLF enjoy widespread support among the Oromo people, Ethiopia's largest ethnic group.

The powerful Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) also bowed out.

The OFC's party leader, Tiruneh Gamta, said he doubted the elections would be successful.

"I am not saying this because we are not participating in this election," he told DW.

"All parties that have different ideas need to reach a common understanding of at least the main problems and the current situation in the country," Gamta added.

"We need to discuss how to reassure the citizens in the conflict and bring back the necessary peace." 

Call for consensus

The Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA) party took a different stance. It argued that elections were the best cure for the present unrest.

"I am convinced that elections are a must in the current situation in Ethiopia," party chairman Girma Seifu told DW. "We need a national consensus. But creating such a concept is time-consuming." 

Davison expects EZEMA to mount a strong challenge to Abiy Ahmed's Prosperity Party in June.

Nevertheless, he said he believes the Prosperity Party will win in Oromia.

"The only question is to what extent a victory can be seen as having popular legitimacy," Davison told DW.

It is even less likely that all of the various opposition parties in Ethiopia will accept such a result and consider the Prosperity Party the legitimate winner, he added.

The conflict in Tigray is causing great suffering for the civilian populationImage: Mahmoud Hjaj/AA/picture alliance

Observers drop out

Delays, boycotts and simmering ethnic conflict across Ethiopia are not the only issues with the potential to thwart a successful election next month.

The European Union recently canceled its observation mission, voicing doubts about the handling of the electoral process.

"It is disappointing that the EU has not received the assurances necessary to extend to the Ethiopian people one of its most visible signs of support for their quest for democracy," read a statement by EU foreign policy chief, Josef Borrell.

William Davison of the International Crisis Group issued a warning about Ethiopia's future.

"If this electoral process is not accompanied by an attempt to return to all-inclusive politics, then the election could exacerbate Ethiopia's political divisions," he told DW.

Initial urgent steps would be political amnesty for jailed leaders and the start of comprehensive political negotiations, he said.

Otherwise, violence in the country is likely to increase.

Seyoum Getou and Jan Philipp Wilhelm contributed to this article, which was adapted from German.

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