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Ethiopia elections 2021: Abiy Ahmed faces first vote amid conflict

image copyrightAFP

image captionMore than 40 parties have fielded candidates, but most are regionally based

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.

He hopes to secure a popular mandate by winning a majority of the federal parliament’s 547 seats.

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

Voting has also been delayed in some other parts of the country because of security concerns and logistical problems.

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.

Changes included creating a new party – the Prosperity Party – to bring the governing coalition together into one organisation. 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 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 – deploying 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.

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 captionSome opposition parties are boycotting the vote

Opposition parties in some pivotal regions 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.

Looking for a popular mandate

Analysis, Catherine Byaruhanga, BBC News, Agaro, Ethiopia

As each day has passed in the build-up to the poll, the tally of how many constituencies will not be taking part has risen.

It now stands at more than 100.

The reason is the changing realities on the ground in many parts of the country.

Flare-ups of inter-communal violence and the war in Tigray have meant voting cannot take place in some areas and have cast a shadow of the election.

But the exercise must go ahead – the constitution demands it.

And perhaps crucially, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed also needs to show he can achieve a popular mandate, which he hopes will give him the backing to try and bring the country together.

Will polls be held everywhere in the country?

Officials say more than 37 million voters have registered to vote out of about 50 million potential voters.

But 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 but no date has been set yet for Tigray.

In May EU officials said they would not be sending an observer mission, accusing Ethiopia of failing to guarantee the independence of its team or allow it to import communications equipment.

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

Will they be peaceful?

Ethnic violence has increased in several regions since Mr Abiy came to power. There are fears that this could undermine the poll.

As well as Tigray, federal forces are battling an insurgency in parts of Oromia and quelling ethnic attacks in Amhara. In the western Benishangul-Gumuz region, fighting over land and resources has led to the death of hundreds since last year.

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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