At last, Ethiopia will have its federal and regional council elections on June 21st. Amid an ongoing conflict in Tigray, heightened international pressure, worsening economic situation due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, boiling tensions with Egypt and Sudan, and increased ethnic divisions within the country, this election takes place at a critical juncture in Ethiopia’s contemporary history.
As Ethiopians head to the polling stations on Monday, it is highly likely that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s party – the Prosperity Party – will emerge victorious, and thus the occasion presents him with a golden opportunity to cement his hold on power and push through his agenda with more vigour. However, the election result would do next to nothing to heal the nation’s numerous wounds not least because major opposition groups are boycotting the event.
Run up to the vote
Originally set up to take place in August of 2020, Ethiopia’s electoral board postponed the vote due to COVID-19; a decision that was contested by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leadership and eventually led to the current civil war in the country’s north. Under the pretext of national security, moreover, senior figures from opposition groups in Oromia were arrested in July 2020. As a result, elections will not be held in certain regions, making the electoral landscape far less competitive. In the meantime, Addis Ababa and Khartoum are at loggerheads over the border region of al-Fashaga while the dispute between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan over the filling of the GERD is escalating further.
Where will the elections take place?
At stake are the 547 seats in Ethiopia’s House of Representatives as well as all the regional state councils and legislatures and self-governing city councils of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa.
Due to security reasons, there will be no election in the famine-hit and war-torn Tigray as well as fourteen other constituencies in Western Oromia, where there is a growing insurgency by the Oromo Liberation Army, the unofficial military wing of the Oromo Liberation Front. Accusing the federal government of implementing repressive and discriminatory policies aimed at stifling their electoral prospect, the political leadership of the OLF has boycotted the vote. The most worrying trend here is the fact that the armed insurgency seems to be gaining popularity amongst the public, and that the prospect of a violent conflict cannot be ruled out.
Similarly, in the GERD’s home region of Benishangul-Gumuz on the Ethiopia-Sudan border, Gumuz militias’ violent attacks against other groups and federal forces have led the government to call off the vote in the region. As such, elections are planned in only one electoral zone out of the three. Unlike the Oromo region, however, Benishangul-Gumuz is sparsely populated and does not carry the same electoral weight nor significance as Oromo.
Finally, due to administrative problems with the printing of ballots, elections have been postponed to September 6 in a number of constituencies in the Southern regions, though the exact number of affected constituencies is still unknown. In addition, the planned referendum on the creation of a Southwest regional state — which was due to take place alongside the federal votes on Monday — will now take place on September 6.
The Day After
Given the flat electoral scene and the significant resource disparity between the ruling party and the opposition, itwould be surprising if Prime Minister’s party does not win most of the votes. However, a clear win or majority may not bode well for the country’s future stability.
For one, the election result will be deemed illegitimate in the Tigray and Oromo regions: as such, the Prosperity Party’s success could very well exasperate current tensions between the federal government and regional parties. Mr. Abiy will be able to claim a popular mandate and thus seek to push through his reform agenda on political and economic fronts. This means that he will probably seek to implement his plans for further centralisation of power while simultaneously pushing towards privatisation of state-owned entities as well as the financial sector’s deregulation. The main problem here is that his political agenda could upend his economic programme: his drive towards centralisation is simply an ammunition for advocates of regionalism and therefore could lead to heightened tensions and increased instability, and this, in turn, will reduce investor confidence in the Ethiopian market.
With regard to the ongoing conflict in Tigray, it is likely — and indeed unfortunate — that the federal forces will renew their campaign against the TPLF leadership, maintaining the prospect for a negotiated solution to the conflict rather slim. Defeating TPLF is essential to Prime Minister’s political vision and any compromise will be seen as a sign of defeat. More importantly, perhaps, a compromise could set a precedent for advocates of regionalism in the Oromo and Amhara regions; thereby derailing Abiy’s political agenda altogether. In fact, it would not be surprising if the newly elected government sought to buy itself a free hand in Tigray by softening its position on GERD. With the election hurdle out of his way, Abiy might be willing to make a face-saving compromise around the filling of the dam if Egypt and Sudan assist his government in capturing TPLF leadership.
Last but certainly not least, the outcome of the vote in Addis Ababa could weaken the internal cohesion of the Prosperity Party. Put briefly, Oromo nationalists have always claimed Addis Ababa has been built on their ancestral lands and that the city’s expansion has come at their expense: that is, they have been unjustly evicted from their lands. Should the ruling party win the vote in Addis Ababa, therefore, these grievances could complicate power sharing arrangements between the Amhara and Oromia factions within the party. In the worst-case scenario, such internal divisions could translate into violent public clashes and spill over to other parts of the country.