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Crisis looms in Ethiopia as elections are postponed

Martina Schwikowski
June 16, 2020

Ethiopia's government has postponed elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Discontent with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is growing. Opposition parties feel excluded from the reform process. Even his supporters are unhappy.

Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed speaking to the press wearing a face mask
Image: DW/S. Wegayehu

Abiy Ahmed ran for office with the promise of reconciliation for all Ethiopians. Two years after he was sworn in as prime minister, the country is as divided as ever.

Befekadu Hailu of the Ethiopian think-tank "Center for the Advancement of Rights and Democracy" (CARD), fears an increase of violence in the coming months, but not so much because of the elections' postponement.

"This is more about ethnic bitterness than non-democratic practices," Befekadu told DW. "Especially the nationalists in Oromia and Tigray and some in Amhara are mobilizing their supporters."

Frustration grew when the government postponed general elections indefinitely and had parliament approve the act last week. A new parliament was supposed to be elected in August, to subsequently appoint a prime minister. Now the present government and parliament will remain until the end of the coronavirus pandemic. The opposition accuses Abiy Ahmed of stalling elections.

Opposition without a role

Meanwhile, it's business as usual for 43-year-old Abiy. The prime minister is sticking to his ambitious plan to quickly reforest large parts of the country.

Despite the pandemic, he wants 5 billion trees to be planted by the end of July. William Davison, Chief Analyst for Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group, worries that contradictory signals being sent out by the government could not only lead to more protests and violence, but also to a boycott of next year's elections by the opposition.

"The danger for Abiy and his government stems from the fact that they have not responded to demands by the opposition," Davison told DW.

"When Abiy took office, the opposition demanded to be politically involved in the transition period leading up to the next elections. But the government simply went back to day-to-day business. The opposition was given no formal role."

All of this is a major setback for the democratization process that Abiy initiated in 2018, Davison said. "The elections, which may now take place only in 2021, should have been a milestone in the plan for democratic change in Ethiopia. The idea was to hold even freer and fairer elections with the participation of political parties in order to set the country on the road to a multiparty democracy.

The president of the Tigray region Debretsion G. Michael
The president of the Tigray region, Debretsion G. Michael, threatens to go ahead with elections anyway Image: DW/M. Hailesilassie

Is Tigray going it alone?

So much for the ideal. According to experts, many of Abiy's supporters are also disappointed with his policies to date. When the young politician came to power unexpectedly two years ago, he immediately set about turning the country upside down. The old power elite was forced to step back. All of a sudden there was free speech. Rebel groups were allowed to return to the country and register as parties. Above all, Abiy promised free elections.

His courage was rewarded the following year with the Nobel Peace Prize. But by that time, hope had already given way to disillusionment which prevails to this day. Increasingly ethnic groups in this country of 109 million inhabitants started striving for autonomy.

Among them is the Tigray ethnic group in the northeast. Its party ruled the country for years. Today Tigray people feel marginalized. The president of the parliament, a Tigray politician, resigned after accusing Abiy of authoritarian tendencies.

A few days ago, her party — the People's Liberation Front of Tigray (TPLF) — announced that it would hold regional elections in Tigray in August. Davison sees this as an acute threat to the stability of the country. The party is on a collision course with the government, which will not accept any solo runs.

"There is no easy solution," said the Crisis Group's Ethiopia expert. "Only comprehensive political talks on the electoral process, but also on the deeper conflicts — such as autonomy aspirations and institutional reforms — will bring the TPLF to the bargaining table."

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed planting a tree to launch a campaign for reforestation
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is set to plant 5 billion treesImage: DW/S. Wegayehu

Negotiating out of the impasse

Befekadu Hailu does not believe that elections will take place in the Tigray region in the next three months. An electoral commission would first need to be set up, since the central government will most certainly refuse to cooperate. It is also unlikely that the region can come up with a sufficient budget. "I expect that the TPLF will negotiate with Prime Minister Abiy and that the situation will calm down," said Befekadu.

Despite his criticism of the Abiy government, Davison says accusations that the prime minister will use the pandemic to remain in power indefinitely are unfounded. That sounds like a conspiracy theory, he told DW.

But he does sees Abiy's reform process in danger. "It is worrying that elections are now dependent on health officials announcing the end of the pandemic." Ongoing protests in the country's largest region, Oromia, in particular, could lead to the failure of the drive towards democratization, he added.

Street Debate: Youth unemployment in Ethiopia

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