Tigray conflict, ′legitimacy question′ clouds Ethiopia′s election | Africa | DW | 21.06.2021

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Tigray conflict, 'legitimacy question' clouds Ethiopia's election

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed described Monday's election as the country's most democratic. But the war in Tigray and the postponement of the election in two other regions have cast doubts on the vote.

Watch video 01:28

Ethiopians finally able to cast their votes

It was calm in Ethiopia's Southern regional capital of Hawassa as voters lined up to cast their ballots on Monday. "It is peaceful, reliable. We can believe it," one voter told DW. "I would like to elect my leader who is going to lead me, first in a peaceful life, for development, equality, peacefully democratically, and human rights will be respected in the future."

Peace, democracy, and human rights are three things Ethiopia's next premier will need to address. On Monday, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said she was "deeply disturbed" by reports of continued human rights violations, including executions in Tigray.

She accused both sides of committing atrocities and noted that there were "credible reports" of the presence of Eritrean soldiers despite a promise to withdraw.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.

UN rights chief Bachelet said she was deeply concerned by violations in Tigray region

The UN has warned that 350,000 people face famine in Tigray. The conflict has uprooted 1.7 million people from their homes.

"At least from the election management body's side, this election has been probably the most neutral body that has been regulating the [electoral] process," Befekadu Hailu, an Ethiopian political commentator and columnist, told DW.

Tough path to democratic transition

"Unfortunately, the political crises across the country, especially the war in Tigray, the violence in west Oromia, has shadowed the whole process. It is almost undermining the legitimacy of the whole process," Befekadu said. According to him, this election's legitimacy is expected to be extremely low compared with two years ago.

"The conflict in Tigray has affected the whole opportunity of transitioning to a seemingly democratic process," Befekadu said.

An Ethiopian election poster.

Abiy's Prosperity Party is expected to win after some opposition parties boycotted

When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, he quickly embarked on major political reforms that won him praise at home and abroad. Many Ethiopians had grown weary of the then ruling EPRDF Tigrayan-led coalition that dominated politics from 1991 to 2019. Abiy expanded the country's political and media space by releasing several political prisoners and journalists. His rapprochement with former nemesis Eritrea won him the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.

History of ethnic tensions 

Abiy has since grappled with ethnic tensions in Africa's second-most populous nation. Elections in the country's Somali and Harari regions have been postponed to September due to insecurity or logistical challenges.

"I don't think anyone wants to take the premiership of Ethiopia job because the crises are extremely complex and wide-ranging," Befekadu said. "The next prime minister has a lot of things to do, but, most importantly, fixing the security problems, the violence everywhere across the country should stop, and people need to feel safer."

Many observers agree that, for this to happen, there needs to be some reconciliation between political parties and leaders, including the ruling party and the major opposition groups. "There needs to be economic efforts because, at the bottom of all political conflicts, there are economic questions, there are questions on equity and economic representation."

For Chalachew Tarekegn, political science and international relations lecturer at Bahir Dar University, the election winner has their work cut out for them. "Ethiopia faces a multitude of problems: Internal conflicts between different ethnic groups, political instability, destruction of private property, and a number of humanitarian crises," Chalachew told DW.

Dispute with neighbors

In addition to these internal challenges, there are diplomatic disputes with Egypt, Sudan and Western allies around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). "An elected government capable of action would enable Ethiopia to confront domestic and foreign policy challenges and represent national interests," Chalachew added.

Befekadu said the prime minister would need a second mandate to carry out some constitutional reforms. "At least, that is what is rumored, even though we don't have any evidence to substantiate it." He said dialogue among the political parties was key to resolving the crises.

"It should be moderated by external bodies, probably civil society or the international diplomatic community," Befekadu said. "Otherwise, no dialogue can be accepted by one or the other group."

No EU observers

The European Union on Friday stated that it would not send election observers to Ethiopia. Europe's 27-member bloc said it was concerned with ongoing violence across the country, human rights violations and political tensions, harassment of media workers, and detained opposition members. The EU also called on all actors to refrain from spreading hate speech and calling for acts of violence.

An EU election observer.

EU election observers are staying away citing political tensions in Ethiopia.

But Chalachew said the absence of EU observers would not affect the credibility of the election result. "Most of the time, Western allies like the United States and European Union have their own interests. This political election observation is a pretext for them," Chalachew said. 

"Whether or not the EU sends observers will not give meaning to the Ethiopian election," Chalachew added. "What will add value to the people of Ethiopia is an election that has legitimacy by the people, the general public of Ethiopia." The final election results are expected to be announced by July 1.

"We will have to wait and see whether we will have a one-party government or a coalition, but the main thing is that Ethiopia now has a consolidated government," Chalachew said.

Watch video 02:04

350,000 in Ethiopia's Tigray region afflicted by famine

Alemnew Mekonne and Shewangizaw Wegayehu contributed to this article.