Ethiopia’s Planned 2021 Elections are Undemocratic
Ethiopia has been planning its sixth and long-awaited federal parliament and regional council elections since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in April 2018. Although elections were initially planned for May 2020, Abiy postponed national elections citing COVID-19 outbreaks and threats to national security as a pretext. Despite this postponement, the Tigrayan Regional Council conducted its constitutionally mandated regional elections in September 2020. The election, which resulted in a newly formed Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) led government, was met by a declaration of war by the Ethiopian federal government with support from the Eritrean government and Amhara regional forces.
Yet, as recently as the beginning of May 2021, the Ethiopian government was planning to hold its elections at a time of COVID-19 resurgence and internal conflict and instability rivaling the most violent times of Ethiopian history—putting into question its true intentions behind delaying the elections. Most recently, the Ethiopian government postponed the elections set to take place on June 5, 2021, not because of COVID-19 or the ongoing conflict throughout the country, but because “practically, it became impossible to deliver all these at the originally slated dates” Aljazeera. (2021, May 15). Ethiopia delays polls again amid security, logistical challenges. Aljazeera. … Continue reading, as per the chairwoman of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). The government now plans to hold elections in late June 2021.
Abiy’s promise to further democratize Ethiopia has been left unfulfilled. By partaking in authoritarian practices and rulings, including manipulating elections, to serve the goals and desires of his Prosperity Party (PP), Abiy has made Ethiopia a source of instability in the Horn of Africa after having been a force of regional stability for decades.
Leading up to these June 2021 elections, Abiy’s administration has imprisoned opposition leaders and members and suppressed voter rights. Additionally, the ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks, the genocide occurring in Tigray, and delays in the electoral voter processes make these elections anything but free, fair, and democratic. All these barriers would not allow Ethiopian citizens to express their right to suffrage. The following sections will amply describe the factors that make these elections far from exemplary.
The Prosperity Party
Upon being appointed as a transitional Prime Minister by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), Abiy formed a new party, the Prosperity Party (PP), which in turn dissolved the EPRDF. The EPRDF consisted of four major parties: the TPLF, the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM). Abiy formed the PP by bringing together the OPDO, ANDM, SEPDM, and other ethinic based parties.
The TPLF rejected the formation of the PP on the grounds of unconstitutionality, as such a change would require changing the constitution–a decision which should be made by an elected parliament whose mandate has not expired. Upon the establishment of the PP, Abiy appointed the heads of each region’s government, except for in Tigray where the dissenting TPLF were in power and were re-elected during the constitutionally mandated, but elsewhere postponed, elections in September 2020. In forming the PP, Abiy took the role of an elected official and used it to put forth a unitarist political agenda. The PP aims to dismantle the federal system that existed under the EPRDF in exchange for a centralized government.
After postponing elections in 2020, the government started to prepare to hold the elections in 2021. What was clear, however, is that the PP would remain the ruling party. The PP currently dominates the governments of the ten regional states. Even if other parties take part in the elections, most are rooted in their respective regions and do not have organizational outreach outside their region; therefore, they will only be able to obtain a small number of votes and parliamentary seats, in comparison to the far-reaching PP. The PP’s national presence will enable it to win enough votes in each region, which will eventually add up to the 274 parliamentary seats needed to form a government. The federal parliament currently has a total of 547 seats Hailu, F. (2021, February 5). Election 2021: Ethiopia’s transition from a dominant coalition to a dominant party. Ethiopia Insight. … Continue reading and cannot exceed 550 Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Constitution, Article 54 (3) https://ethiopianembassy.be/wp-content/uploads/Constitution-of-the-FDRE.pdf.
Although tensions have risen among some of the ruling regional parties within the PP, it will still be able to gain the necessary votes to win the election. Other opposition parties and legitimate contenders in the election have been forced out of the political landscape; their voices suppressed with opposition leaders being imprisoned. Such suppression leading to the inaudible presence of opposition parties greatly limits their ability to gain parliamentary seats.
Abiy’s administration is able to maintain its stronghold on the Ethiopian people and politics through the media. The most prominent media outlets in Ethiopia are government-funded and controlled. Therefore, Abiy can use the media as his free platform to spew his propaganda and dominate the political discourse. Ethiopian media outlets continue to “frame the June  election[s] as critical in laying a democratic foundation” Oumer, B. (2021, April 28). Ethiopia should reschedule the June election. Here is why. Kichuu Info. https://kichuu.com/ethiopia-should-reschedule-the-june-election-here-is-why/, as they persuade the public using divisive rhetoric and propaganda. Abiy’s propaganda machine even extends to the U.S.; a recent exposé on Voice of America’s coverage of Ethiopia and specifically the war on Tigray strongly condemned VOA’s journalistic practices, supported by both former and current employees Turse, N. (2021, May 21). Propaganda Machine. The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/2021/05/21/voice-of-america-ethiopia-bias/.
By controlling the media and journalists, the PP has been able to conceal the war crimes and ethnic cleansing happening in Tigray. Without the oversight of domestic media, international coverage, and social media, it becomes harder to demonstrate how the media is being used as a tool to manipulate the narrative surrounding the elections; but there is no doubt that it is happening.
Political repression has been another key tool used by the PP to ensure citizens vote for Abiy. The continuous postponement of the elections to control voter registration and the election campaign and the silencing of regional opposition parties indicate political repression.
The NEBE, whose chairwoman was appointed by Abiy, is responsible for the postponement of the 2020 and 2021 elections. The Board did not offer credible explanations or insight into their decision-making process. The NEBE has played and continues to play a crucial role in making the upcoming elections unfair, as the Board does not have rules that require the incumbent to consult opposition parties when making important decisions regarding election postponement. Political consensus from all political parties is required to ensure that election processes and decisions are fair and not serving one group over another.
Opposition party leaders are being imprisoned, making it harder for the opposition parties to have a fair shot at the elections. The “[…] imprisonment of senior leaders from the Oromo Federalist Congress, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Baladeras for Genuine Democracy, and many other parties means PP will have less opposition” Hailu, F. (2021, February 5). Election 2021: Ethiopia’s transition from a dominant coalition to a dominant party. Ethiopia Insight. … Continue reading. With the majority of opposition party senior leaders in prison, the widespread repression of other candidates by the government, and the denial of opposition parties or candidates running any campaign, free and democratic elections cannot happen.
Some of the imprisoned senior leaders include Bekele Gerba, Jawar Mohammed, Hamza Borena, Eskinder Nega, Sintayehu Chekol, Aster Seyoum, Dejene Tafa, Gemechu Ayana, Shemsedin Taha Murataa Sabaa, and Mohamed Ragasa—all of whom would have played instrumental roles in making these elections not only competitive but also representative of the people and their political parties. Hundreds of local party leaders have also been put in jail Hailu, F. (2021, February 5). Election 2021: Ethiopia’s transition from a dominant coalition to a dominant party. Ethiopia Insight. … Continue reading. The majority of these opposition leaders have been jailed on trumped-up charges and false allegations because they threaten the PP’s dominance. With no participation of credible political opponents, the pending elections end up being a “one-man-show.”
Voter Disinterest, Boycotts, and Suppression
In 2021, there has been a lack of interest in voting as the majority of the population is not represented by the participating parties. Since prominent political leaders and community members have been put in prison, very few individuals desire to vote in an election with only one option.
This widespread disinterest in voting is reflected in low voter registration. In fact, at the end of April 2021, the voter registration period was extended as only “[…] 18.4 million out of the 50 million potential voters have so far registered to vote” Famagusta Gazette. (2021, April 25). Voter registration for Ethiopia general elections extended by two weeks. Famagusta Gazette. … Continue reading. Ethiopian government officials have been frustrated by the numbers, as they seem to be lower than the expected voter registration goal. Low voter registration could also suggest both voter suppression and election boycotts. To inflate the number of voters in rural areas, there are claims that Abiy’s administration has tied possession of voter cards with some benefits like having access to fertilizer and seeds. In urban areas, some have confirmed being coerced into registering to vote when they visited their local government for other public services.
There are also multiple examples of voter repression around the country. For example, on April 11, 2021, the Harari Regional State Council criticised the NEBE’s decision to “invalidate the [votes of] members of the Harari community [living] outside their regional state” Mekonnen, S. (2021, April 13). News: Harari National Congress says decision by Electoral Board ‘Not Acceptable. Adidas Standard. … Continue reading. In past elections, Harari people living outside their region could easily fill out absentee ballots. Due to the NEBE’s decision, the Ethiopian Supreme Court has challenged the order to restrict voting rights to reverse the decision. Such a decision by the NEBE is not only illustrative of voter suppression practices used in the elections but also highlights the power, influence, and authority the NEBE has to implement such a decision.
HCO, and all #Hararis around the world, condemn the decision of @NEBEthiopia to limit #Harari voting rights.— Harari Council of Ontario (@HarariCouncilON) April 12, 2021
We see the decision of NEBE & other recent activities as an encroachment on Harari rights to self-determination & a precursor to further disenfranchisement of #Harar|is. pic.twitter.com/SVVPGMnz47
Further, prominent opposition political parties who have been repressed and extremely constrained by Abiy’s administration have boycotted the elections. In December 2020, the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) released a statement saying: “As the OFC has repeatedly expressed in the past, it finds it extremely difficult to take part in the election when the majority of its members […] who are competing, coordinating, and observing elections are imprisoned, and majority of its offices, except for its headquarters, are closed” Adidas Standard. (2021, May 29). Opposition Party Oromo Federalist Congress Says It Will Find It “Extremely Hard” To Take Part In Coming Elections Under Existing Conditions. Addis Standard. … Continue reading. Opposition parties continue to boycott voting today as security conditions in Oromo, Tigray, and Amhara continue to deteriorate, negatively impacting the credibility of the upcoming elections.
Abiy used COVID-19 as an excuse to postpone the federal election originally scheduled for May 2020. At the time of the postponement, COVID-19 cases were relatively low, making it possible to hold the elections while abiding to proper safety measures and protocols. Prior to making a unilateral decision to postpone the elections, the NEBE should have facilitated a discussion regarding the postponement with all oppositional political parties, including the TPLF, and tried to obtain a consensus. Instead, in March 2020, Abiy went ahead and had the NEBE “postpone” the elections. It is clear, however, especially in retrospect, that the postponement was just an attempt to extend Abiy’s time in power.
COVID-19 still poses a serious threat to the elections in that “voter and candidate registration, voter education, organization of polling stations and constituencies, election campaigns and voting” are still impaired by the pandemic Alemu, G. (2021, February 8). Ethiopia’s next poll could be more competitive. But big challenges remain. The Conversation. … Continue reading. However, COVID-19 was not cited as a reason for the 2021 elections postponement; instead the NEBE cited a “plethora of logistical delays, such as finalising voter registration, training electoral staff, printing and distributing ballot papers” Al Jazeera. (2021, May 15). Ethiopia delays polls again amid security, logistical challenges. Al Jazeera. … Continue reading. Hence, although COVID-19 cases have been rising at alarming rates, Abiy still plans to hold elections with a foregone conclusion to consolidate and strengthen his own power and authority.
Safety and Security
One of the main factors, if not the main one, contributing to the fraudulent nature of the June 2021 elections is the security situation in the country. Abiy’s administration is responsible for leading Ethiopia into a state of dire internal conflict, in which the government and its allies are committing war crimes that severely affect the personal safety and livelihoods of people in Tigray, Oromia, and Benishangul-Gumuz. The most dire situation is in Tigray, where the Ethiopian government has waged a genocidal war. Over 5 million Tigrayans are on the verge of mass starvation, along with facing numerous other genocidal acts. Tigray is the only region where the elections have been “postponed” until security is restored, and election polls are established Alemu, G. (2021, February 8). Ethiopia’s next poll could be more competitive. But big challenges remain. The Conversation. … Continue reading.
Civilians in other Ethiopian regions also face food shortages and scarcity, and have been denied the right to access food and aid. In a leaked document from Oromia Region PP officials, the Ethiopian government threatens that those who refuse to vote in the upcoming elections will be denied from obtaining food aid TriState Tegaru Advocacy Group. (2021, April 20). Instagram Post. TriState Tegaru Advocacy Group, April 18, 2021. Unfortunately, because senior opposition leaders are imprisoned, they are not able to stop the PP or intervene to ensure that food aid is not getting abused and threatened.
By unilaterally deciding to delay the elections in March 2020, Abiy’s administration breached the Ethiopian federal constitution, which mandates elections every five years. Abiy not only postponed the elections, but also made drastic reforms and pushed his agenda prior to obtaining legitimacy through elections. Abiy has manipulated the elections to serve his interests of centralizing power, dismantling the ethno-federalist government structure, and repressing his political opponents.
Since the postponement of the elections, Abiy has led the country to the verge of complete disintegration through political repression, state-sponsored genocide, fueling ethnic violence, and holding any elections unrealistic and any results illegitimate. Before any election can occur, cessation of violence, national dialogue, and reform need to take place to ensure the safety of the electorate and the people of Ethiopia.
As expressed by U.S. Senators concerned about the elections, “ […] if elections move forward without reforms required to earn the trust of the Ethiopian public, growing ethnic and political tensions across the country will boil over into even greater violence” Ben Cardin. U.S. Senator of Maryland. (2021, April 30). Senators Detail Urgency in Ethiopia, Ahead of Regional Travel by Biden’s Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa. Press Release. … Continue reading. As long as Abiy continues his unfair election practices and policies or is elected during extremely flawed elections, stability in Ethiopia will not be achieved.
Omna Tigray Contributor, June 2021
|↑1||Aljazeera. (2021, May 15). Ethiopia delays polls again amid security, logistical challenges. Aljazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/15/ethiopia-again-delays-national-election-amid-deadly-tensions|
|↑2, ↑6, ↑7||Hailu, F. (2021, February 5). Election 2021: Ethiopia’s transition from a dominant coalition to a dominant party. Ethiopia Insight. https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2021/02/05/election-2021-ethiopias-transition-from-a-dominant-coalition-to-a-dominant-party/|
|↑3||Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Constitution, Article 54 (3) https://ethiopianembassy.be/wp-content/uploads/Constitution-of-the-FDRE.pdf|
|↑4||Oumer, B. (2021, April 28). Ethiopia should reschedule the June election. Here is why. Kichuu Info. https://kichuu.com/ethiopia-should-reschedule-the-june-election-here-is-why/|
|↑5||Turse, N. (2021, May 21). Propaganda Machine. The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/2021/05/21/voice-of-america-ethiopia-bias/|
|↑8||Famagusta Gazette. (2021, April 25). Voter registration for Ethiopia general elections extended by two weeks. Famagusta Gazette. http://famagusta-gazette.com/2021/04/25/voter-registration-for-ethiopia-general-elections-extended-by-2-weeks/|
|↑9||Mekonnen, S. (2021, April 13). News: Harari National Congress says decision by Electoral Board ‘Not Acceptable. Adidas Standard. https://addisstandard.com/news-harari-regional-state-cabinet-says-voters-registration-not-taking-place-rejects-decision-by-electoral-board/amp/|
|↑10||Adidas Standard. (2021, May 29). Opposition Party Oromo Federalist Congress Says It Will Find It “Extremely Hard” To Take Part In Coming Elections Under Existing Conditions. Addis Standard. https://addisstandard.com/news-opposition-party-oromo-federalist-congress-says-it-will-find-it-extremely-hard-to-take-part-in-coming-elections-under-existing-conditions/|
|↑11, ↑13||Alemu, G. (2021, February 8). Ethiopia’s next poll could be more competitive. But big challenges remain. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/ethiopias-next-poll-could-be-more-competitive-but-big-challenges-remain-154393|
|↑12||Al Jazeera. (2021, May 15). Ethiopia delays polls again amid security, logistical challenges. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/15/ethiopia-again-delays-national-election-amid-deadly-tensions|
|↑14||TriState Tegaru Advocacy Group. (2021, April 20). Instagram Post. TriState Tegaru Advocacy Group, April 18, 2021|
|↑15||Ben Cardin. U.S. Senator of Maryland. (2021, April 30). Senators Detail Urgency in Ethiopia, Ahead of Regional Travel by Biden’s Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa. Press Release. https://www.cardin.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/senators-detail-urgency-in-ethiopia-ahead-of-regional-travel-by-the-bidens-special-envoy-to-the-horn-of-africa|