ADDIS ABABA – Ethiopians voted Monday in a major test for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose rise to power initially seemed to signal a break with decades of authoritarian rule but who has since waged war in the Tigray region and whose party has been accused of election abuses.
The parliamentary election, delayed from last year, is the centerpiece of the promised reform drive by Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and he has described the poll as “the nation’s first attempt at free and fair elections.”
But international concern has been growing about the vote, and opposition groups have accused Ethiopia’s ruling party of harassment, manipulation and threats of violence that echo abuses of the past. One opposition leader still said he hoped the election would come off with only minor problems, but some prominent opposition parties are boycotting the election, notably in the country’s most populous region, Oromia. Others say they were prevented from campaigning in several parts of the country.
In more than 100 of the country's 547 constituencies, polls are not even open — either because of the ongoing war in the northern Tigray region or logistical issues elsewhere. No date has been set for voting in Tigray’s 38 constituencies. The rest will vote in September — and the next government likely won’t be formed until that happens.
Abiy, whose party is widely expected to cement its hold on power, is also facing growing international criticism over the war in Tigray, sparked in part because the region’s now-fugitive leaders objected to Ethiopia postponing the election last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Monday, long lines of voters were seen in some parts of the capital, Addis Ababa, while security was stepped up across Africa's second-most populous country. Military vehicles were parked in key locations in the capital. More than 37 million Ethiopians were expected to vote, and one noted the wide range of candidates running.
“Last time we didn’t have a choice, but this is totally different,” Girmachew Asfaw said.
But another resident of the capital, who gave only his first name, Samuel, said he wouldn’t be voting. “Two or three years ago I would have voted for Abiy, but now there are a lot of troubles in our country,” he said.
Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party, formed in 2019 by merging groups that made up the previous ruling coalition, registered 2,432 candidates in the election. The next largest party, Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, was fielding 1,385 candidates. A total of 47 parties were seeking seats. Final election results from Monday's voting are expected within 10 days.
The spirit of this election “is much better in many ways than the previous elections,” Abiy said Monday, adding that the country is “witnessing the atmosphere of democracy.”
But opposition groups sounded warnings of election day harassment.
Opposition candidate Berhanu Nega with the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party told reporters that his party had recorded more than 200 instances of its election observers being “kicked out” of polling stations or denied access. He said he hoped the troubles “do not reflect the whole process.”
Getnet Worku, secretary general of the opposition ENAT party, accused Prosperity Party members of campaigning inside polling booths and said five of his party’s agents were detained for several hours, calling it “a matter of intimidation.”
Ethiopia's election chief, Birtukan Midekssa, told reporters that some election-related problems had been witnessed in the Amhara, Afar and Southern regions with some observers having difficulty in moving around and doing their job, which she called “concerning.” Some opposition candidates also are having trouble moving around, and “this may cause a problem in the election process and its result, so it has to stop immediately.”
Birtukan earlier had acknowledged “serious challenges” but noted that more parties and candidates are contesting than ever before. “I call on the international community to support Ethiopia on its democratic journey, stressful and imperfect though it is,” she wrote in the U.S.-based magazine The National Interest.
Tigray’s former leaders, who are fighting Ethiopian forces and those from neighboring Eritrea, have reported fierce new combat in recent days. Abiy’s government and the regional one each view the other as illegitimate, and the war broke out late last year, after Abiy accused the region’s forces of attacking a military base.
Ethiopia’s defense forces have called recent fighting challenging because of the rough terrain. Thousands of civilians have been killed and famine has begun as observers warn that the conflict is becoming a drawn-out guerrilla war.
Meanwhile, outbreaks of ethnic violence have killed hundreds of people in the Amhara, Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions in recent months.
“We need a government that brings us peace, unity and that will stop the killing everywhere, and we also need to be pulled out from these ethnic divisions,” voter Desalgn Shume said.
International concern has been growing about the election. The U.S. has said it is “gravely concerned about the environment under which these upcoming elections are to be held," and the European Union said it will not observe the vote after its requests to import communications equipment were denied.
In response, Ethiopia said external observers “are neither essential nor necessary to certify the credibility of an election,” although it has since welcomed observers deployed by the African Union.
The United Nations secretary-general has noted the “challenging” environment and warned against acts of violence.