Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is almost certain to win Ethiopia’s much-delayed election on Monday, but the wartime vote is unlikely to restore the global support and domestic stability that he craves.
Almost one-fifth of the country, including the war-ravaged Tigray region, will be unable to vote because of continuing violence or logistical issues. And in the heavily populated Oromia region, several opposition leaders are imprisoned or boycotting the election, further damaging its credibility.
The election in Africa’s second-most populous country was originally scheduled to be held last year, but has been postponed twice since then.
With opposition strongholds absent from the voting or weakened by the boycotts and arrests, Mr. Abiy and his ruling Prosperity Party are expected to capture a majority of parliamentary seats, helping him consolidate his grip on power after three years in office.
But the vote will do little to resolve the Tigray conflict and could even stoke further tensions in Oromia. “These constituencies will doubtless see the vote’s outcome as illegitimate,” said political analyst William Davison in a commentary for the International Crisis Group last week.
Mr. Abiy has shown few signs of interest in dialogue with his opponents. He recently vowed to “destroy” what he describes as Ethiopia’s internal enemies. Unless he becomes more conciliatory, the unrest and instability in the country could “spike further,” Mr. Davison said.
Mr. Abiy was widely seen as a liberal reformer when he took power in 2018. After decades of authoritarian governments in Ethiopia, he freed thousands of political prisoners and allowed opposition parties to operate, sparking hope for the country’s future.
“In hindsight, the euphoria appears unrealistic,” said Adem Abebe, a democratic-governance expert at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, in an analysis published last week.
“The pendulum swung back to an enduring political culture of mistrust, labelling, absolute dominance and elimination,” he said.
“Transitions from authoritarianism are moments of weakness, vulnerable to potential breakdown of order and even civil war, particularly in countries divided along identities.”
On the international stage, the election is unlikely to help Mr. Abiy regain the popularity that he enjoyed in 2019 when he won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping settle a long-standing border conflict with Eritrea.
Mr. Abiy is already facing the suspension of some categories of financial aid from the United States and Europe because of his actions in Tigray. For months, he has defied international pressure on the Tigray conflict. European and North American governments have urged him to ensure that relief agencies have full access to Tigray and continue to insist that thousands of Eritrean troops are withdrawn from the region, but neither has happened yet.
The European Union announced last month that it will not send an observer mission to the election, since the government had rejected the mission’s standard request for assurances of security and independence. Another group of observers, from the United States, has warned that the election is facing “significant difficulties” – including widespread insecurity and ethnic conflicts – that will threaten its credibility.
“The right to campaign freely is undermined by the precarious security situation in some constituencies,” the U.S. observers said in a report this month. “At the same time, political parties representing the opposition have raised complaints about the intimidation and harassment of their supporters and candidates.”
The U.S. State Department, in a statement earlier this month, said it is “gravely concerned” about the environment under which the elections are being held – including the detention of opposition leaders, harassment of the media, and the many conflicts across the country. These are “obstacles to a free and fair electoral process and whether Ethiopians would perceive them as credible,” the U.S. statement said.
“The exclusion of large segments of the electorate from this contest due to security issues and internal displacement is particularly troubling.”
The Canadian government has voiced its own concerns about the election. In an e-mailed response to questions from The Globe and Mail, the Global Affairs department said it is concerned by the “challenging environment” under which the election will take place. It called for “a broader inclusive political process to foster national reconciliation.”
Mohammed Girma, a visiting lecturer at the University of Roehampton and a research associate at the University of Pretoria, said there is still a chance that the election could nudge Mr. Abiy into an improved dialogue with the Tigray and Oromia regions. But there is also a “real possibility” that he could choose a more authoritarian path after the election, Mr. Girma said.
“There will be no shortage of pretexts if this is deemed politically profitable,” he said in an analysis published last week. “Abiy can project himself as the leader of law and order.”
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