Current Affairs East Africa

Ethiopia’s elections paper over the cracks in democracy

Ethiopia’s elections paper over the cracks in democracy
  • PublishedMay 31, 2021

Ethiopia’s twice-delayed parliamentary elections are now scheduled for 21 June, but no matter who wins, fundamental issues that continue to hold Ethiopia back from achieving its full potential will remain unresolved, writes James Jeffrey.

At time of writing national parliamentary elections are due to take place in Ethiopia on 21 June, after being twice delayed. While I can’t predict how the elections will go and who will win – though it appears extremely likely that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his Prosperity Party will retain power – I can confidently predict that the elections will not include the region of Tigray. It’s a massive discrepancy – especially for the people of Tigray – for an election that is meant to be national in nature.

The absence  from the ballot of one of the country’s 10 regions primarily stems from Tigray being mired in six months of catastrophic conflict since President Abiy launched a military offensive at the start of November against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The region’s election absence also signifies that, whatever the result of the national election, the issues that underpinned the breakout of the conflict, and which pervade fault lines running throughout all Ethiopia and its other nine regions, remain painfully extant and urgently in need of resolution.

Hence whoever comes out of the election on top will have little reason to savour the taste of victory, faced with myriad issues that ultimately could pose an existential threat to Ethiopia as a nation state.

“Millions of Ethiopians will not be able to participate [in the election] due to the security situation in Tigray, Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz and Amhara regions,” says Tewodrose Tirfe, chair of the Amhara Association of America, a US-based advocacy group for the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group.

“Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has not provided a strategy to end the conflict in Tigray, end the atrocities against civilians in Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions.”

Background to conflict

That said, the completion of the election would not be without significance. The first postponement, last August, was highly contentious. The TPLF responded that the central government had become illegitimate, arguing Abiy no longer had a mandate to lead the country.

That led to Tigray defiantly holding its own elections in September, which the Federal Government declared illegal, compounding long-running tensions between the two sides that finally erupted in the conflict of early November.

A completed election would at least mean the electoral cycle is back on track, and there’s no denying the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) has thrown a lot of money and human effort at it. 

But there is also no getting away from the fact that despite Ethiopia successfully holding regular elections since 1991, none of them, with the notable exception of 2005, has offered the majority of Ethiopians with a meaningful choice.

The 2005 elections demonstrated high levels of opposition and voter participation but ended in violence and the deaths of nearly 200 civilians during protests. After early results showed the opposition with a big lead, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party chose to reverse the poll results by force.

“No serious local analysts and journalists I have met believe [this] election will be free and fair, but there are powerful forces which want to have it conducted nonetheless,” says an Addis Ababa-based journalist. “The election is also about electoral process aesthetics, giving an impression of holding a competitive election.”

The journalist describes the election as offering a “fig leaf to the international community”. He describes the formation of various “opposition parties” rumoured to be connected to the Prime Minister to offer the semblance of “free and fair” elections. That aesthetic sleight of hand culminates in the fact that the absence of the EPRDF in this election isn’t quite the step forward toward democracy that it might appear.

At the end of 2019, Abiy dissolved the EPRDF, merging the ethnically based regional parties – apart from the TPLF, which refused to join – into a single, national entity: the Prosperity Party.

Events since then have indicated that Abiy and the Prosperity Party are just as disinclined as the EPRDF toward relinquishing power. In early May, the European Union scrapped plans to send election observers, citing problems with ensuring the mission’s independence.

A rider on horseback waves a Prosperity Party flag next to a bus covered with the party’s campaign regalia in Addis Ababa during an electoral rally in May. (Photo by Amanuel Sileshi / AFP)

Dispute over nature of state

The continual failure to deliver free and fair elections is one of the fundamental issues whose lack of resolution contributes to how Ethiopia, despite its population size, grand history and achievements on so many fronts, continues to struggle. The biggest issue at the heart of Ethiopia’s ructions is the dispute over the nature of the Ethiopian state.

“Ethiopians disagree over the balance of power between the centre and the regions, and over the role of ethnolinguistic identity groups in politics and the federal system,” Will Davison, senior analyst for Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group, wrote in a recent UK  Guardian opinion article titled “The alleged atrocities in Tigray risk tearing Ethiopia apart“.

As a result, the current federal system created by the TPLF-led government following the 1991 revolution against a military dictatorship and based on ethnolinguistic identity is facing increasing strain and criticism. 

“If Ethiopia does not reform the ethnic system that leaves millions of Ethiopians stateless if they live outside of their ‘ethnic homeland’, Ethiopia will not be able to realise true democracy and take advantage of its enormous natural potential and population size,” Tewodrose says. “The ethnic federalism system is hardly a nation building project and has evidently become a system that is encouraging separatism.”

But others such as Davison say it is not as simple as some argue that Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism is no longer fit for purpose.

“There are defects in the federal design, which have been compounded by authoritarianism,” Davison says. “Ethiopia’s difficult socio-economic conditions also increase the possibility of youth mobilisation due to the large number of unemployed. But it’s important to remember why the federal system came about, which was sustained armed resistance from various liberation fronts to homogenising tendencies.”

It’s a sentiment also keenly held by the Oromo – Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group – in Oromia, who like Tigrayans are increasingly incensed by the behaviour of Abiy and the Prospect Party. The two main Oromo opposition parties have boycotted the June election.

“The current violent blowback indicates that Abiy and his allies cannot achieve peace and prosperity for all Ethiopians by imposing their vision and party on Ethiopia using the coercive power of the state,” says Davison, adding that the prospect of a rapid democratic transition from EPRDF rule has now gone.

The increasing insurgency in Oromia, in addition to civil war in Tigray, leaves Ethiopia weaker and more fragile than it has been for decades, Davison says.

This is not lost on the likes of Sudan and Egypt, which have long-running disagreements with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project as well as, in Sudan’s case, a territorial dispute, nor on Eritrea to Tigray’s north.

The precarious situation is made all the worse, Davison says, by the “extreme toxicity” between the main political actors involved, polarised perspectives and “unwillingness to compromise”.

It all means that even if Abiy accepted the dire need to bring everyone around the table to hash out a compromise –which so far he has shown no sign of being willing to consider – it would be a “very difficult discussion,” Davison says. But, he adds, despite the difficulties of trying to negotiate a consensus, a continuation along the same violent trajectory would be disastrous.

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