Ethiopia elections 2021: Abiy Ahmed faces first vote amid conflict

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image captionSome 37 million people registered to vote in the election

Ethiopians are voting in key elections amid rising tensions and a bloody conflict in the northern Tigray region.

This pandemic-delayed poll is Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s first electoral test since coming to power in 2018.

But the vote has been postponed in Tigray, where the army has been fighting a local force since November.

Insecurity and logistical problems have hit other parts of the country as well, so overall there will be no voting in about a fifth of constituencies.

The Tigray conflict has sparked a humanitarian crisis, with 350,000 people living in famine conditions, according to a recent assessment.

Voting is taking place in the capital, Addis Ababa, where BBC reporters have seen long queues of voters. It is one area where Mr Abiy is expected to face a stiff challenge and where the opposition has succeeded in the past.

“I came here to contribute to the election which I believe could be a great milestone for democracy,” Demiss Beyene, who started queuing two hours before polls opened, told the BBC.

“I believe the election will bring in peace… I really wish this election brings back our unity, instead of dividing us over ethnicity. I want to see a country where anyone can freely move and work in any place,” Tadelech Benti, another voter in Addis Ababa, said.

The general election, the first since 2015, was originally slated for August 2020 but was rescheduled because of coronavirus.

Under the initial election timetable, preliminary results from constituencies are to be announced within five days of the election, while final certified results are to be announced within 23 days.

Why are these elections so important?

Mr Abiy came to power in 2018 as the nominee of the then-ruling coalition but he has never faced the electorate.

He rose to the top job on the back of protests against the government dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and embarked on shaking up the country.

In the last election, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition and its allies won all the seats but Mr Abiy has dissolved the coalition and created a new party – the Prosperity Party – in an attempt to reduce ethnic division. The TPLF, however, did not join.

image copyrightReuters

image captionPrime Minister Abiy Ahmed says the poll will be Ethiopia’s “first attempt at free and fair elections”

Mr Abiy will keep his post if the party wins a majority of the 547 seats in the national assembly. He says the polls will be “the nation’s first attempt at free and fair elections”.

His reformist zeal saw him win the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, but just a year later, he waged a military operation in his own country. He deployed troops to Tigray to oust the TPLF as the region’s ruling party after it seized military bases in what Mr Abiy saw as a bid to overthrow him.

It resulted in a conflict that has killed thousands of people and has led to mass hunger and reports of a famine in the region.

media captionWhy what’s happening in Ethiopia matters for Africa

What does the opposition say?

More than 40 parties have fielded candidates, the National Election Board of Ethiopia says, but most of them are regional parties.

Opposition parties have complained that a government crackdown against their officials has disrupted their plans to prepare for the polls.

image copyrightAFP

image captionMore than 40 parties have fielded candidates, but most are regionally based. Some opposition parties are boycotting the vote

In some pivotal regions, such as Oromia, opposition parties are boycotting the election.

The Oromo Liberation Front pulled out in March, alleging government intimidation.

The TPLF has been designated a terrorist organisation. Some of its leaders have been arrested, while others are on the run or are continuing to wage a guerrilla war in Tigray.

The view from Abiy Ahmed’s home constituency

Catherine Byaruhanga, BBC News, Beshasha village, Ethiopia

In the valley between rolling hills the local market in Beshasha village has been turned into a polling station for the day.

This is where Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was born and grew up and he is hugely popular. He features on almost every campaign poster in his constituency.

But there are two candidates running against the prime minister here and they tell me that local officials have harassed their supporters and made it hard for them to campaign. Yet they’re careful about how much they criticise the prime minister.

Some of the country’s biggest political parties have boycotted this election citing intimidation from the state. And some of Mr Abiy’s biggest opponents on the national stage are in detention accused of trying to destabilise the country.

Despite the fact that 20% of constituencies will not vote today due to insecurity and logistical challenges the government is standing by today’s vote and says it will be a genuine reflection of the will of Ethiopians.

Find out more about Ethiopia’s election:

Will the poll be free and fair?

Despite being billed as a national contest, elections will not be held in around one-fifth of the country’s 547 constituencies, including all 38 seats in Tigray and 64 others across Ethiopia.

image copyrightReuters

image captionVoting is not taking place in the war-torn Tigray region

Most of the delayed votes are scheduled for 6 September though no date has been set yet for Tigray.

There are election observers from the African Union as well as a number of Ethiopian groups but the EU will not be sending a team. in May, the EU accused Ethiopia of failing to guarantee the independence of its mission.

Ethiopia responded by saying external observers were “neither essential nor necessary to certify the credibility of an election”.

Mr Abiy has dismissed international concern over the elections and has insisted the election will be free and fair.

“When the entire world is saying we will fight on election day, we will instead teach them a lesson,” he told supporters at a rally last week.

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