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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." 

Ethiopia: Tigrayans flee as fresh conflict erupts

Tens of thousands of Tigrayans are being driven from their homes by the Amhara militia. The latest conflict was sparked by a historic land dispute. Local towns are struggling to cope with the exodus.

general.image.copyright_prefix Baz Ratner/REUTERS

A temporary home

11-year-old Asmara holds her 1-year-old brother Barakat at the doorway to their living space at Tsehaye primary school in the town of Shire, which has been turned into a temporary shelter. Four months after the Ethiopian government declared victory over the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), tens of thousands of Tigrayans are again being forced to flee their homes.

general.image.copyright_prefix Baz Ratner/REUTERS

Waiting for food

Displaced Tigrayans queue for food at the temporary shelter. These people weren't driven from their homes by fighting between the Ethiopian government and the rebels. According to witnesses and members of Tigray's new administration, regional forces and militiamen from neighboring Amhara are now violently trying to settle a decades-old land dispute in the Tigray region.

general.image.copyright_prefix Baz Ratner/REUTERS

Disputed territory

The town of Adigrat in Tigray, which is also considered a strategically important gateway to Eritrea. Amhara officials say about a quarter of Tigrayan land was taken from them during the almost 30 years that the TPLF dominated power in the region. However, Tigrayan officials say the area is home to both ethnic groups and the borders are set by the constitution.

general.image.copyright_prefix Baz Ratner/REUTERS

On patrol

Ethiopian soldiers on the back of a truck near Adigrat. Fighters from Amhara first entered Tigray in support of federal Ethiopian forces during the TPLF conflict. They have remained in the region since the fighting subsided, with local officials accusing them of driving out Tigrayans.

general.image.copyright_prefix Baz Ratner/REUTERS

Basic comforts

A man carries mattresses into the Tsehaye primary school in Shire. The latest territorial dispute threatens to worsen an already precarious humanitarian situation. According to Tewodros Aregai, the interim head of Shire’s northwestern zone, the town was already hosting 270,000 people before the latest influx of refugees and is running out of food and shelter.

general.image.copyright_prefix Baz Ratner/REUTERS

New arrivals

A bus carrying displaced Tigrayans arrives in Shire. It is difficult to verify the exact number of people who have fled in recent weeks, as some have been displaced several times. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says some 1,000 arrive in Shire every day, while the Norwegian Refugee Council says between 140,000-185,000 arrived over a two-week period in March.

general.image.copyright_prefix Baz Ratner/REUTERS

From campus to shelter

Displaced Tigrayans try to make themselves at home at the Shire campus of Aksum University, which has also been turned into a temporary shelter. The four centers set up in the town to house new refugees are almost full. Some families squeeze into classrooms, halls and half-finished buildings, while others make do camping under tarpaulins or on open ground.

general.image.copyright_prefix Baz Ratner/REUTERS

Holding loved ones close

A woman holds an infant inside a temporary refugee shelter at the Adiha secondary school in Tigray's capital, Mekelle. Many of the Tigrayans who have fled their homes have described attacks, looting and threats by Amhara gunmen, with some bearing scars from their ordeal.

general.image.copyright_prefix Baz Ratner/REUTERS

An echo of conflict

A burned-out tank near the town of Adwa stands as a stark reminder of the simmering conflict in the Tigray region. The United Nations has already warned of possible war crimes taking place in Tigray, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said ethnic cleansing is taking place and called on Amhara forces to withdraw from Tigray.

general.image.copyright_prefix Baz Ratner/REUTERS

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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