Facing numerous technical difficulties, the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) delayed parliamentary elections from June 5 to June 21, postponing the vote for the second time. Some major opposition parties are boycotting, and no voting will take place in civil war hit Tigray or in several other areas facing insecurity. Elsewhere, deficiencies in election administration have meant voting has already been postponed in many constituencies, and some of the logistical arrangements to underpin the vote are still to be implemented. Although there are risks of electoral violence, any incidents are unlikely to be especially significant in a context of high levels of ongoing political violence.
Overall, there is little doubt as to the outcome: as Terrence Lyons and USIP’s Aly Verjee explain, the ruling party of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will likely have a large majority in the next parliament and thus retain control of the government. While Abiy’s early proclamations on democratic reform once sparked considerable optimism, there are now serious questions about whether these elections will advance democratization or lead to further political polarization. However, some subnational state assemblies may receive, for the first time, representatives from more than one political party, potentially auguring a new era in local politics, at least in some areas.
Is Ethiopia prepared to hold elections on June 21? What is the electoral landscape?
Verjee: Ethiopia’s lower house of parliament, the House of People's Representatives, has 547 seats to represent the roughly 110 million citizens of Ethiopia. 420 seats (77 percent) come from just three regions: Oromia (178), Amhara (138), and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region (SNNPR, 104). It is in these regions where the election will be won. Abiy’s Prosperity Party (PP) faces little opposition in Oromia, where two important parties, the Oromo Liberation Front and the Oromo Federalist Congress, announced early on that they would boycott the election because many party officials and members had been arrested and their party offices were closed by local officials. Many PP candidates in Oromia are running unopposed. In most of the SNNPR, there too appears to be little competition for the PP. In some areas of both Oromia and SNNPR, a few other parties are fielding candidates, and there are also some independents competing. The Amhara region is perhaps the most competitive, with both the National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) and the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party (known as Ezema) hoping to make gains against the PP.
At least three of Ethiopia’s 10 regions — Harar, Somali and Tigray — will see no voting at all on June 21. In Harar, disputes over voter eligibility saw the NEBE taken to court by the regional government, leading to a judgment against the NEBE, delaying the electoral process. In the Somali region, irregularities affected voter registration and in three constituencies, the regional government itself interrupted in the process. And in Tigray, the ongoing war and ensuing humanitarian disaster has precluded any voter registration or electoral preparations. In two other regions — Afar and Benishangul-Gumuz — fewer than a third of constituencies may vote, due to errors in ballot printing. Gambela region has also seen significant ballot printing problems.
In total, at least 76, and potentially well over a hundred of the 547 constituencies will not see any voting on June 21, meaning a sizeable number of the 37,408,600 voters who registered to participate will have to wait to cast their votes. Further, the referendum on the creation of the South West Regional State, which would carve out of the existing SNNPR the Kaffa, Sheka, Bench Sheko, Dawuro and West Omo zones, as well as the Konta district, has also been postponed, to considerable local discontent. The NEBE has suggested it could organize a second round of parliamentary elections and the South West referendum in September, after the worst of Ethiopia’s rainy season has passed.
Lyons: Total registration in 2021 is on par with the registration for the 2015 elections, despite an estimated overall population increase of 10 million. The NEBE extended the deadline for registration in an effort to increase participation. Some opposition leaders allege that the government forced people to register and some poll workers complain that their payments are delayed. Furthermore, in a context of considerable political polarization, there are worrying reports of local officials blocking registration of minority communities. The NEBE alleged in May that “low-level government officials” were intervening at polling stations and registration was cancelled in certain constituencies as a result.
The cancellation of the planned 2019 census makes basic demographic information contentious and redistricting last took place in 1995 despite significant internal migration and urbanization since. In non-competitive elections, significant levels of registration and turnout are often seen as indications of political support for the incumbent and in the past elections have seen high levels of voter participation.
In addition, pervasive insecurity in Tigray, western Oromia, the Metekel zone in Benishangul-Gumuz, and in parts of other regions has created significant numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the NEBE has struggled to register these vulnerable populations. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Ethiopia had nearly 2.7 million IDPs at the end of 2020, and these numbers have increased in recent months.
In some ways, the 2021 elections represent improved democratic practice over past elections. While the NEBE has faced considerable logistical challenges, it is a more independent electoral body than previously. Furthermore, civil society organizations have mobilized to engage in civic education and observation for the first time since 2005, suggesting the potential for greater involvement of non-governmental and professional organizations in Ethiopia’s political processes.
Why is Abiy Ahmed almost certain to win a large majority? And if he does, what, if anything, does the election change? What does the election tell us about the state of political competition?
Lyons: In 2015, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and its affiliates won 100 percent of the seats in the federal parliament and main regional assemblies. The current ruling PP has retained some of the human and financial resources of the EPRDF and many local administrators have remained in place despite the change of the party in power in Addis Ababa. These local structures are deeply embedded and control important resources and retain coercive power, making it difficult for the opposition to compete. In the past, zones identified with the opposition have faced repression and restrictions on development resources.
The PP is a national party but remains organized along ethnic lines in the regional states defined by ethnicity. There is an Amhara Prosperity Party, an Oromo Prosperity Party, a Somali Prosperity Party, and so forth. These ethnically defined structures reward parties that mobilize on the basis of identity, making non-ethnic political mobilization difficult.
Verjee: The political and security environment — and the limitations of COVID-19 — have led to a fairly muted campaign. Apart from the PP, most parties have campaigned little, although as the vote draws near, campaigning has intensified somewhat. So too have the complaints of opposition parties. The Enat party accused the PP of interfering in voter registration, intimidating voters and orchestrating the detention of party members. Ezema has made similar complaints, and noted limitations on its ability to campaign in some rural areas. NAMA has reported the deaths of some of its supporters at the hands of the government, as well as harassment when attempting to campaign in rural areas. Other smaller parties have made similar complaints. There are two ways to interpret such reports. One is that the incumbent party is threatened by the genuine appeal of other parties and thus resorts to coercive means. A less charitable interpretation is that, particularly in local and rural administrations, a culture of tolerance for political pluralism has yet to take root, even if opposition parties are no electoral threat to the PP.
How will these elections shape the future of Ethiopian politics?
Verjee: Unlike previous elections, there is not a single story to Ethiopia’s 2021 vote. In many places, the process is uncompetitive and there is no uncertainty about the result. In a few, limited cases, such as the subnational state assemblies, embryonic multiparty politics may be emerging. This election is not a replica of the sham of 2015, but the process still seems to be a long way from satisfying the democratic aspirations of many Ethiopians.
Lyons: Abiy promised democratic elections in his first news conference as prime minister in 2018 but the mandate and legitimacy of a competitive poll seem beyond reach in June 2021. There are serious concerns that the elections may mark the beginning of a period of greater instability and authoritarianism. However, a single election was never going to resolve Ethiopia’s core challenges with violence, marginalization and lack of political space. What matters going forward is the nature of the next phase of political reform and whether more inclusive processes can be institutionalized.
Terrence Lyons is associate professor at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, George Mason University, and author of the 2019 book, The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics.