Ethiopia planned to hold general elections last year, but postponed them due to COVID-19 and other factors. Subsequently, fighting broke out in the Tigray region. After several postponements, the government has set the polls for June 21, 2021.
At stake are all 547 seats in the House of Peoples’ Representatives, the lower house of Ethiopia’s parliament (the upper house is elected indirectly), as well as regional offices and seats on local councils.
These elections are taking place in the context of political change in Ethiopia, and in the midst of both the opportunity to build a democracy and the threat of ethnic violence. Furthermore, the country risks breaking up, especially amid crisis in Tigray region in the north that exploded into violent conflict in November 2020. It is a time of great promise and great peril for Ethiopia.
In 2018, Ethiopia began a historic process of democratization following the selection of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister. Reforms included releasing political prisoners, opening up Ethiopia’s previously closed political space, and pledging to hold free and fair elections in 2020. In that vein, Abiy appointed Birtukan Mideksa, a former opposition activist who had been jailed and exiled for protesting the regime, to oversee the country’s elections. However, Ethiopia’s reformers face many obstacles, including entrenched opposition to democracy within the political establishment.
For historical background: In 1974, communist rebels deposed Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie and instituted the Derg (“Committee”), a Marxist military junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, which brought forth famines and a collapse of Ethiopia’s economy. It governed brutally, even genocidally. Following a civil war, the Derg was ousted in 1991 by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of ethnically-based rebel militias. The EPRDF took power and morphed into a coalition of four ethnically-based political parties: Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM). In power, EPRDF instituted a controversial ethnically-based federalist system that has led to a current climate of tension and unrest.
EPRDF has held elections regularly, but aside from the 2005 polls, none were competitive or credible. In the last elections, in 2015, the EPRDF won 100 percent of the parliamentary seats. However, following three years of protests, the EPRDF chose Abiy as prime minister. In December 2019, Abiy merged three former EPRDF parties to form the Prosperity Party, which will contest the forthcoming elections.
The upcoming much-anticipated elections were originally supposed to take place in May 2020, but because neither election officials nor political parties were on track to be prepared, the election commission set a date in August 2020. COVID-19 and a climate of increased ethnic violence and political tension further delayed the elections.
Rising Ethnic Tensions Threaten Security and Democracy
Ethnic tensions have been on the rise. Under the EPRDF, the country’s four biggest ethnic groups (Amhara, Oromo, Tigrayan, and southern groups) had representation, but Tigray dominated. It was protests in Oromia that began in 2015 that ultimately led to the installation of Abiy (the first Oromo to hold Ethiopia’s top post) and the current political transition.
In June 2020, the singer Hachalu Hundessa was murdered in Addis Ababa. Hundessa was a vocal advocate for the Oromo people, and his murder led to violent clashes. Over 9,000 people were arrested, and 2,000 face criminal charges, including a prominent Oromo politician. The Economist notes: “This year alone at least 147 fatal clashes have left several hundred dead, according to figures compiled by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data project.”
Tensions have been particularly rising among members of the Tigray ethnic group, and in November 2020 broke out into violent conflict.
Before the shooting began, Tigrayan leaders rejected the election delay, calling it a political ploy to illegitimately extend Abiy’s mandate. They also alleged that the Abiy government is persecuting Tigrayans under the guise of holding the old regime accountable. They subsequently held elections to their regional parliament on September 9, and TPLF won in a landslide.
Abiy’s government deemed the elections illegal, and Ethiopia’s parliament subsequently voted to cut ties with Tigray and dissolve the regional government. After that, fighting broke out between Ethiopian federal government forces and the TPLF, and continues. Moreover, internet and telephone are cut off in the region, making it difficult to know the exact situation.
Abiy’s government has barred the TPLF from standing in the upcoming elections, which could further complicate reconciliation efforts.
In short, all of these factors leave Ethiopia’s transition to democracy in limbo.
Lynsey Addario and Rachel Hartigan, National Geographic (May 28, 2021): A grave humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Ethiopia. ‘I never saw hell before, but now I have.’
Maggie Fick, Reuters (May 28, 2021): In Abiy’s Ethiopia, press freedom flourished then fear returned
Antony Sguazzin, Bloomberg (May 28, 2021): Next Africa: Ethiopia’s Fall From Africa’s Darling to Pariah
Editorial Board, Financial Times (May 27, 2021): US is right to impose sanctions on Ethiopia: Abiy must stop the violence in Tigray and expel Eritrean troops as a first step
AFP (May 25, 2021): Five things to know about Ethiopia’s election
BBC News (May 17, 2021): Why Ethiopia election delay could spark new crisis
François Picard, Charles Went, and Juliette Laurain, France24 (May 3, 2021 – video): Which way for Ethiopia? Abiy cracks down on regional revolts ahead of elections
Ann FitzGerald and Hugh Segal, RUSI (April 19, 2021): Ethiopia: A New Proxy Battlespace?
Nick Westcott, African Arguments (March 18, 2021): Ethiopia: PM Abiy’s three big challenges
Ameyu Etana, BBC (March 10, 2021): Ethiopia’s main opposition party pulls out of poll
Joshua Keating, Slate (March 9, 2021): The Information Age Retreats From the Battlefield
AP (March 8, 2021): Jailed Ethiopian opposition leaders to end hunger strike
AP (February 25, 2021): Hunger-striking Ethiopia politicians ‘deteriorating’ in jail
Zecharias Zelalem, Al Jazeera (February 13, 2021): Ethiopia: Concern grows over health of jailed political leaders
Girmachew Alemu, The Conversation (February 8, 2021): Ethiopia’s next poll could be more competitive. But big challenges remain
Simon Marks and Declan Walsh, New York Times (January 22, 2021): On ‘Rooftop of Africa,’ Ethiopia’s Troops Hunt Fugitive Former Rulers
Samuel Gebre Bloomberg (January 18, 2021): Ethiopia Pulls Tigray Party License Ahead of June Elections
BBC (November 7, 2020): Ethiopia parliament dissolves Tigray leadership
Declan Walsh and Simon Marks, New York Times (November 6, 2020): Having Made Peace Abroad, Ethiopia’s Leader Goes to War at Home
Desta Gebremedhin, BBC (November 5, 2020): Tigray crisis: Why there are fears of civil war in Ethiopia
AP (November 6, 2020): Ethiopia aims to remove leadership of defiant Tigray region
Elias Gebreselassie, Jazeera (October 19, 2020): In Ethiopia, a heated political tug-of-war sparks security fears
Ian Bremmer, Time (October 9, 2020): What Happens Next in Ethiopia’s Political Turmoil
AFP (October 7, 2020): Ethiopian parliament votes to cut ties with Tigray region leaders
Al Jazeera (September 24, 2020): Ethiopia: 2,000 charged over violence sparked by pop star’s death
The Economist (September 19, 2020): Ethiopia’s democratic transition is in peril
Giulia Paravicini, Reuters (September 11, 2020): Regional party wins vote in Ethiopia’s Tigray, challenging federal government
Desta Gebremedhin, BBC (September 4, 2020): Why there are fears that Ethiopia could break up
Yohannes Gedamu, The National Interest (June 22, 2020): Obstacle Stand in the Way of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Moves Towards Democracy in Ethiopia
Zecharias Zelalem, Quartz (June 18, 2020): Ethiopia’s decision to delay its election for Covid will have consequences for its democratic goals
Morris Kiruga, The Africa Report (May 25, 2020): Ethiopia: Indefinite postponement of polls raising political tempers
William Davidson, The Africa Report (April 16, 2020): Coronavirus: Ethiopia’s opportunity to reboot its troubled transition
Bronwyn Bruton, Atlantic Council’s AfricaSource (April 2, 2020): Coronavirus deals a blow to Ethiopia’s elections
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Updated June 5, 2021