In the midst of an extremely tense political situation, both inside Ethiopia and in terms of tension with its neighbors Sudan and Egypt over its controversial project to build the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, parliamentary elections were held in the country. This was the sixth general election since the current regime came to power more than three decades ago.
The elections were overshadowed by one of the most disastrous and tragic events that this country with 110 million people has experienced in recent years. Above all, this means the brutal – and still unresolved – conflict in the Tigray Region in northern Ethiopia, which has left thousands killed, injured, or displaced, and has drawn international attention to the atrocities committed there. The conflict has left deep wounds on an entire nation – one that once believed in real change following Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power in 2018.
At that time, the young prime minister, who came to power amid widespread discontent and mass protests across Ethiopia against abuses committed by the previous regime, promised to lead the multinational nation toward a genuine democratic transition. The early days of his reign demonstrated that the country’s aspirations for democracy could become a reality in the near future, especially when he embarked on wide-ranging political reforms, enabled freedom of the press, and opened up political space for dissidents – at one time called terrorists – to return to the country and join in its political processes. But Abiy Ahmed also put forth an idea that would later turn everything on its head in a country highly polarized along ethnic lines, and specifically his philosophy of Medemer (synergy). For him and others who believed in that, this was the best way to rid the country once and for all of narrow-minded practices that center on ethnicity, and force all citizens to rally together for their country, and not for their specific ethnicity.
One of the first steps taken by Abiy Ahmed in this direction was unifying parties within the coalition of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which had previously ruled the country and lent at least de jure support to its federal system, into one party, his Prosperity Party (PP). The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had ruled the region in an alliance over the decades, decided not to join the new formation. When Abiy Ahmed announced that the elections in 2020 would be postponed, Tigray immediately repudiated this, viewing it as an illegal attempt to extend the prime minister’s term and a threat to people’s right to self-determination; it then held regional elections, which in turn were declared unlawful. Shortly thereafter, Addis Ababa severed ties with the Tigray government and, eventually declaring war, deployed troops there.
Abiy Ahmed’s entire policy suggests that he clearly intends to crush any opposition that opposes his efforts to concentrate power. Ironically enough, when he came to power in 2018 there was hope in society that he would finally guarantee rights for various communities that had been repressed for so long. But that was short-lived. It soon became clear that he wanted centralized, absolute power, and federalism, which decentralizes power in various regions across the country, was something that stood in his way. The demand for federalism that Abiy Ahmed is trying to suppress, must be understood in the context of Ethiopia’s past history, which is characterized by the dominance of one ethnic group, forced assimilation, and denying various communities their cultural rights and right to express their identity. The 1995 constitution attempted to address this problem by creating a multi-ethnic federal system that granted cultural communities the right to self-determination, right up to and including the right to secede. Although it is expressly stipulated in the constitution, Ethiopian federalism has never been effectively put into practice.
In a country where the people’s loyalty to their ethnicity is much higher than loyalty to their nation, it was necessary to first check on what the situation was before trying to put theory into practice. Those who opposed Medemer, and not only among the Tigrayans but also those in the country’s two main regions of Oromia and Amhara, feared that their achievements – and especially their right to self-government – would be eroded, and that it might only be a matter of time before this new approach would lower the curtain on their cultural distinctness, identity, languages, and age-old traditions. Medemer is apparently something to be viewed as meaning aspirations for a powerful, centralized form of government that is designed to meet the demands put forth by the incumbent prime minister. Moreover, the popular mandate that Abiy Ahmed received through the ballot box looks more like something out of a dream than ever. An estimated 32 million voters have registered for the upcoming elections, which is less than one third of the total population. Elections also failed to take place in 40 constituencies that span six major regions.
A lengthy statement released by the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) describes “security issues” and “violations” involving voter registration in detail, as well as related violations in regions that include Oromia, Amhara, Somali Region, Benishangul-Gumuz, and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region. Unfortunately, the people of Tigray also did not have the right to vote in the elections, since it is a highly turbulent region and taking into consideration the deteriorating security and humanitarian conditions.
Another devastating blow was dealt to the elections when the European Union decided not to establish an observation mission, citing the Ethiopian authorities’ refusal to respect “key parameters” that are necessary for the mission’s “integrity”. As the EU put it, it did not receive “the guarantees necessary to give the Ethiopian people one of the most visible signs of support for desire for democracy”. The EU, one of Ethiopia’s largest sources of financing, had hopes that Abiy Ahmed would spearhead the country’s transition to a real democracy, and wanted him to serve as a model for a continent that has yet to take its first steps toward that.
Ethiopia’s ruling party won an overwhelming majority in a landmark parliamentary poll, the election council stated, which secured a new five-year term for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. His party won more than 400 seats out of the 436 that were up in the elections, according to results released by the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) at a rally in Addis Ababa. The final documents from the NEBE showed that the PP won 421 seats, but then said that repeat elections would need to be held in 10 constituencies, and votes would need to be recounted in three more. The poll was conducted at the height of the debilitating conflict in the country’s northern Tigray Region that has undermined Abiy Ahmed’s global reputation, and raised fears of widespread famine. Voting did not take place in about one fifth of the country’s 547 constituencies. Repeat voting is supposed to take place on September 6 in many of the districts that were left on the sidelines, but a date has yet to be set for Tigray.
If Ahmed is going to form the next government, he will have to reconsider this “notorious” alliance with Eritrea or risk further deterioration in relations with Djibouti. Moreover, refugees flooding from Tigray into Sudan and South Sudan have exacerbated the already ailing, fragile economies in these two impoverished countries. Elections in Ethiopia have been marred by violence and fraud, as was widely expected, and this has only increased the influx of refugees along the borders with Ethiopia’s neighbors. Considering that prominent political opponents such as Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba were brought to trial for alleged crimes that could lead to lengthy prison sentences for them, and given the fact that the main dissident figures in Tigray are now silent due to the fighting, Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party has become the leader in the elections, and this will allow him to form the next government of Ethiopia. But this government is unlikely to become durable and strong, since it will have to resolve such complex issues as ending the conflict in Tigray, or the overall settlement of interethnic conflicts occurring around the country.
The latest elections appear to have been conceived as a way not to give Ethiopians a real chance to express their will through the voting process, but to legitimize the current prime minister’s vision of centralized power in a unitary state. The opposition parties that participated in the voting imparted it with a kind of facade “legitimacy”, and gave the impression that a centralized government and a single Ethiopian identity is something that all Ethiopian ethnic communities desire.
Those who supported the election contributed to the unconstitutional seizure of power, the continuation of war, and the denial of war crimes. The voting did not bring the country any closer to peace; on the contrary, it only exacerbated tensions and pushed Addis Ababa further away from ending the civil war and economic turmoil. The current centralized power that now exists in Ethiopia will not bring peace and stability, will only deepen divisions, and nudge it toward further conflict – with dangerous consequences for not only regional but international security.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.