One landslide later: the precarious position of democracy in Ethiopia

By Matthew Egger

Ethiopians headed to the polls on 21 June after elections scheduled for May 2020 were postponed once due to the Covid-19 pandemic and again more recently due to rising insecurity in the country. While the incumbent Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party (PP) secured a landslide victory in the country’s first multi-party election in sixteen years, winning 410 of 436 parliament seats, Abiy has drawn criticism domestically and internationally amid reports of voter harassment and intimidation and the detainment of opposition figures. Furthermore, roughly one-fifth of Ethiopian polling stations did not cast a vote last month due to faulty ballot papers in some constituencies and insecurity in others. These constituencies are scheduled to vote in early September.

PM Abiy took office in 2018 after his authoritarian predecessor resigned amid widespread protests triggered by discontent over what Ethiopians perceived as his favouritism of the Tigray ethnic group. Abiy initiated reforms: he ended a state of emergency, released political prisoners, and announced plans to amend repressive laws. He also promised to hasten democratisation in Ethiopia, in part by holding the June election. However, Abiy has been criticized for backtracking on his commitment to increasing political and media freedoms and for mishandling the Tigray conflict which has killed thousands and displaced millions and led his government to be accused of ethnic cleansing.  

The boycott meant that the Prosperity Party faced essentially no opposition running for Oromia’s 178 seats

The fairness of the 21st June election was in question prior to the polling date as two opposition parties from Ethiopia’s largest and most populous state, the Oromo Liberation Front and the Oromo Federalist Congress, boycotted the election because many of their officials had been arrested and their party offices closed by Abiy’s government. Abiy claims the opposition figures are in prison because they are terrorists aiming to destabilize the country. The boycott meant that the PP faced essentially no opposition running for Oromia’s 178 parliamentary seats. There have also been reports that the government blocked minorities from registering to vote, and heavy rain coupled with the country’s poor transportation infrastructure made getting to and from polling stations a struggle for Ethiopians.

Nonetheless, 90% of the thirty-seven million voters registered turned out to vote and the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) claimed that the election was the most open, fair, and competitive election in the country’s history. Acknowledging that the election took place during a difficult time for Ethiopia, Birtukan Mideksa, Chairman of the NEBE, said that the country “managed to conduct a credible election.” However, the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party filed 207 complaints with NEBE, and Desalegn Chanie, a member of an opposition party, said that the election board failed its duty of assessing complaints around its impartiality. He said that election officials and armed men confiscated election observers’ badges and physically assaulted them.

The government must accommodate competing perspectives

The US, which has imposed sanctions on Ethiopia due to human rights abuses, scrutinized the election citing the detainment of key opponents and insecurity throughout the country. In a statement preceding the election, the State Department said that it was “gravely concerned about the environment” in which the election was held. International perceptions of the election were further damaged by the withdrawal of EU observers who cited restrictions on their ability to move and communicate independently as their reason for leaving.

The election result provided Abiy with the confidence needed to accelerate reforms his government initiated when he came into office in 2018. However, the government must accommodate competing perspectives and arrive at an agreement about how the country should be governed, a drastic shift from the current environment in which Abiy’s government excludes opposition groups by designating them as terrorist groups and imprisoning their leaders.

Image: World Economic Forum / Benedikt von Loebell via Flickr

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