Ethiopia has announced that it will hold elections on June 21 after several deferments to deal with what officials called logistical issues and allow more voters to register for the polls.
The election is seen as the biggest test to the popularity of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
National elections are deemed the best way to cement PM Abiy’s legitimacy that is needed to reunite the country that has been polarised for decades.
Birtukan Mideksa, chair of the National Election Board of Ethiopia [NEBE], on Thursday announced that elections will now be held on June 21, except in the volatile Tigray region, now considered a warzone.
Ms Birtukan met with a number of political party representatives on May 15 to explain the need to delay the national elections slated for June 5, by at least three weeks.
Low voter registration, logistical challenges, security concerns in distributing poll materials, training of electoral staff, and more time needed to print ballot papers were her major reasons for postponing the election. NEBE said the new date is a result of consultations with stakeholders in the country.
Against the backdrop of the raging war in Tigray, on Thursday, the US Senate passed a resolution to compel Eritrean troops to immediately leave the war-ravaged region, where they have been accused of atrocities against civilians, including blocking or looting humanitarian aid.
Asmara denies the charges, but the pressure from Washington means that Addis Ababa’s earlier promise to have Eritrean troops leave the region has been unmet.
Sponsored by Senator James E Risch, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, the resolution condemned human-rights violations allegedly committed by the Eritrean military.
It called for free and fair elections and directed Secretary of State Antony Blinken to ensure an independent investigation into human-rights abuses, atrocities and violations committed in the course of the conflict that began in November 4, 2020, when Addis Ababa announced a “law enforcement operation” against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
This is the second time the elections have been delayed. They were initially scheduled for August 2020 but were postponed due to the outbreak of Covid-19.
The latest postponement of the election comes as major opposition parties, especially in Oromia region, continue boycotting the polls protesting the detention of their leaders.
Delaying the polls does not seem to have caused much anxiety in the country but some argue that the electoral board may not resolve the outstanding issues in the next two to three weeks.
“Pushing the election by weeks means voting will be conducted during the rainy season, which starts in June. This will make it difficult to vote, especially in rural Ethiopia," one party official whose leader is in jail told The EastAfrican, seeking anonymity for his own security.
Some political party representatives says that the federal government might be overwhelmed by security concerns, leading to continual delays beyond the stated date.
Officially, the Ethiopian government has not cited the Tigray conflict among the reasons for delays. In fact, officials say the focus is on providing humanitarian support and “speeding up the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the region,” according to a fact sheet provided by the Ethiopian government.
“Ethiopia has postponed the election because of the delays in opening polling stations and voter registration. All political parties in the country have launched their election campaigns for the past few weeks,” said Meles Alem-Tekea, Ethiopia’s ambassador to Kenya.
Mr Meles said some 200 international observers, including the African Union, the UN, the US and Russia have agreed to send teams. He said civil society groups will also be allowed in.
But the EU has refused to send in a team, arguing certain parameters for electoral observation have not been met.
Mr Meles said the EU’s stance is “a direct violation of [Ethiopia’s] sovereignty.”
“Ultimately, the people of Ethiopia own these elections and decide the future of their country and the generations to come,” he said.
Twenty national and 33 regional political parties are expected to take part in the polls. Some 36 million of the country’s 110 million people have registered to vote, according to NEBE, in what will be the sixth national elections. That figure is at least 14 million less than expected, but about one million more than the voters in the 2015 general election.
As a federal state, Ethiopia elects representatives to a bicameral legislature, composed of 547 seats for the House of the People’s Representatives and 117 seats for the House of Federation, also known as the Upper House.
In the last elections, then ruling coalition Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front [EPRDF] swept most seats as opponents were either banned or in exile. Most competing parties boycotted elections.
When Dr Abiy came to power, he started by releasing most of the political detainees and unbanned some parties. After a series of reforms, he was praised by the world, and even won the Nobel Peace Prize for rapprochement with neighbouring Eritrea. But he is now being accused of rolling back some of the gains by jailing some of his opponents as well as cracking down on independent media.
One of his most prominent opponents, Jawar Mohamed, a former ally, was detained last year.
When Ethiopia delayed elections last August, the Tigray region under Debretsion Gebremichael went ahead and held their local polls, which the federal government rejected.
It started the tiff that blew up into the conflict being witnessed today. Dr Abiy says the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which was once a part of the EPRDF, is now a terrorist group, and hence banned from fronting candidates. His government has vowed to hunt down the remnants of TPLF.
Yet the Tigray conflict is just one security problem. A border tension with Sudan and multi-front ethnic-based conflicts persist, and some politicians now doubt if the government has enough personnel to deploy across the country to oversee and ensure peaceful elections.
While saying that the electoral board "operates independently," PM Abiy tweeted that he agreed to board's decision.
"I want to assure the Ethiopian people that we are doing our best to hold free, fair and transparent elections," he said.
Some concerned groups at home and abroad are calling on the government to prioritise national dialogue and consensus before conducting national elections.
They argue that "the crisis in Tigray and the ongoing ethnic conflict in other parts of the country show that national consultation is needed, not national elections"
They further say the government should release political prisoners and prepare for national reconciliation.
Ethiopia must form a new government on September but Abiy-led government is set to leave out about 7 million Tigray residents out of the national polls, which could trigger further tensions.
A renowned political analyst who preferred not to be named said that "If Tigray didn't vote, forming a new government in September will be unconstitutional."
"The ongoing election process is so dangerous and the games being played out will create another major political crisis," he warned.