In Ethiopia, war and optimism collide as Abiy Ahmed prepares to form new government

Published : September 29, 2021 16:18 IST

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is set to form a new government shortly after the second round of voting is complete. Photo: Phill Magakoe/AFP

Ethiopia is holding the second phase of its belated elections this week. But not all regions are included in the polls.

On October 5, 2020, the mandate of the current Ethiopian Parliament expired. Planned elections had been postponed — officially because of the COVID-19 pandemic — sparking swift criticism from opposition parties. That same day, the leaders of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) — the dominant party in the country's northern Tigray region — declared they would no longer recognize the authority of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed or the federal government, a pivotal point in the ongoing Tigray crisis.

One year on, much has changed in Ethiopia. Abiy's Prosperity Party is set to form a new government after claiming the necessary majority in the belated June elections. But the war-torn Tigray region and the TPLF did not take part in the polls, effectively excluding at least 6 million Ethiopian citizens from the vote — over 5 million of whom are now in urgent need of aid.

The past year has also seen an increase in local conflicts across the country, including sporadic attacks in the vast Oromia region which the government has blamed on TPLF allies, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). Meanwhile, unresolved border issues in the Somali region have only added to a climate of resentment, fear and economic instability.

Elections challenged by insecurity and opposition boycott

While Abiy's Prosperity Party was able to secure a new five-year term in the first round of the vote in June, a second phase of voting is still planned for September 30. Security issues around the country compounded with logistical delays prompted the National Election Board (NEBE) to postpone the polls in 64 constituencies outside of Tigray.

In the Somali region, 3.8 million citizens are registered to cast their ballots. But opposition parties in the area have now decided not to run, claiming they have been subjected to unfair procedures during the candidate and voter registration process.

"The people who genuinely wanted to vote have been blocked," the chairman of the region's main opposition party Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), Abdirahman Mahdi, told DW. "We complained to NEBE, they said they will look into it. They waited for three months and finally they said that everything is fine. They are going to proceed with the same fraudulent procedure, so we've decided it's not worth our efforts anymore."

But according to the NEBE, the boycott has come too late to be effective. "We have already disseminated ballot papers for polling, finalized voter education and other preparations to conduct the elections," explained NEBE communications officer Soleyana Shimeles. "Those parties are on the ballot and hence in the race."

Impatient for a fresh start

Despite the complaints and allegations, for many Ethiopians this is the first election they trust to be as free and fair as Abiy had promised. The 2015 polls ended in brutal crackdowns and repression before Abiy came to power in 2018, pledging a much more transparent and peaceful democratic process.

In any case, the Ethiopian population is growing increasingly impatient for solutions to the country's many problems. As inflation rates soar above 30 per cent, even those who do not live in conflict areas are struggling to make ends meet. Staples like onions, teff and oil have become significantly more expensive, while in some places the price of rice has doubled.

Support for the war continues

But as the Tigray crisis continues in the north, Abiy is still enjoying popular support to continue the war against Tigrayan forces. In Amhara's capital Bahir Dar, regional authorities appear confident, to say the least. "We are winners, the goal of the war is going forward," Gizachew Muluneh, head of communications for the Amhara regional government told DW. "We are gaining a lot and the front sides are on the right track."

This optimism could lead to even more enthusiastic support for the war among some Ethiopians, as they anticipate an end to the conflict. "The recent success of the mobilization in slowing the Tigrayan forces' advance seems to have convinced some people that they can push them back inside Tigray, or otherwise gain the upper hand, so that the federal government can negotiate with the Tigray leadership from a position of strength," William Davison, a senior Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG) told DW.

But with several parts of the Amhara region now occupied by Tigrayan forces, it is looking increasingly unlikely that the fighting will come to an end without a decisive victory from either side.

Key players sidelined in peace talks

Ethiopian authorities are currently discussing plans for an upcoming national dialogue in an attempt to facilitate peaceful conflict resolutions in both the Tigray and Oromia regions. But there's a caveat: Neither the TPLF nor the OLA will be attending the talks, after both groups were designated as terrorist organizations in May.

"[The national dialogue] does not look set to be a sufficiently inclusive process to address the political disagreements that are driving violence in Ethiopia," explains Davison. "That would only occur if there was a political amnesty for all the jailed Oromo and other opposition leaders, and if there were representatives of the main armed groups."

But the ONLF for their part have not ruled out the possibility of being included in talks with the federal government as they seek their own way forward out of the conflict. "Our hope is, maybe, the national dialogue," ONLF chairman Abdirahman Mahdi says carefully. "After Abiy wins, maybe he will open the doors and then we can talk and maybe find a way forward. That is our only hope now."