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Violence, famine in Ethiopia’s Tigray cast shadow over elections

Published: Updated:

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appears assured of retaining his post after Monday’s elections, despite having waged a civil war that’s triggered a famine and failing to contain exploding ethnic tensions.

Some of the main opposition groups are either boycotting the vote or banned from competing, while the 42 others that remain in the running will fragment the anti-government vote. That leaves Abiy’s Prosperity Party with a clear path to retain its majority in the 547-seat House of People’s Representatives -- which elects the premier.

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Originally scheduled for August last year, the vote was twice delayed -- first due to the coronavirus pandemic and then to give the authorities more time to prepare. So far, 38.3 million of the East African nation’s 110 million people have registered to cast ballots at 43,372 polling stations. Voting is due to get under way at 6 a.m. local time, and results are expected within 10 days.

Abiy, 44, came to power after Hailemariam Desalegn quit in 2018 and won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year for ending a long-running conflict with neighboring Eritrea and instituting democratic reforms. He also moved to open up the insular economy, drawing billions of dollars of foreign investment that secured Ethiopia as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

The unbanning of opposition and rebel groups, however, stoked political fragmentation and long-suppressed rivalries among the nation’s ethnic groups. Hundreds of people have died in fighting in the Amhara, Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions. The government responded by arresting opposition leaders and their supporters.

Violence reached new heights after Abiy dispatched federal troops to the northern Tigray province in November after forces loyal to the region’s ruling party attacked a military base. Thousands have died in fighting that ensued, and hundreds of thousands of others have been forced from their homes.

Relief agencies have warned of an unfolding humanitarian crisis, and said the authorities have obstructed efforts to dispense aid to those who need it, an allegation the government denies.

While Abiy has drawn international condemnation and the US has imposed sanctions, he continues to enjoy strong support among many of his countrymen who resented the political dominance the minority Tigrayans exerted prior to him taking power.

Voting Delays

The plebiscite in Tigray’s 38 constituencies has been postponed indefinitely due to ongoing violence. The vote has also been delayed until September in 64 other constituencies that have been plagued by insecurity and organizational problems.

Anti-government activists have flagged concerns about the nation’s overall preparedness for the vote. The US’s National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute have also raised concerns that logistical arrangements may not be completed in time and insecurity could compromise the election’s integrity.

The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia trained 245,000 workers and constituency officers to help run and oversee the vote, and had done the best job it could, according to its spokeswoman Soleyana Shimeles.

“We undertook most of the activities and preparations independently without any interference,” she said in an interview. “Elections are a process and I can’t say we are done with everything. But we’ll make sure we address issues that may occur.”

While 46 local civil-rights groups and about 45,000 individuals have been accredited to observe the vote, the African Union is the only major international organization to deploy monitors. The European Union last month abandoned a plan to send an observer mission because of security concerns, casting further doubts about the election’s credibility.

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