Ethiopia’s decision to delay its election for Covid will have consequences for its democratic goals

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Image: Michel Euler/Pool via Reuters
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Ethiopia this week confirmed it is postponing its general elections by at least nine months, citing the risks posed by Covid-19. The country has nearly 4,000 confirmed cases and has had 61 deaths.

The decision, which was approved by Ethiopian lawmakers, could prolong prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s mandate by up to a year, depending on the country’s ability to contain its worsening outbreak, which has risen by 300% in confirmed cases over the past two weeks.

In response, opposition parties have slammed the decision which they see as the ruling Prosperity Party exploiting the pandemic to ensure the government’s survival. Opposition leaders are adamant coronavirus or not, the government will lose its legitimacy if it attempts to stretch its stay in power beyond the first weeks of October.

Abiy Ahmed had been lauded for ground-breaking initiatives to usher in political reform in a country with a long history of authoritarian rule. After years of mass anti-government uprisings helped his appointment as premier in April 2018, tens of thousands of political prisoners were freed and opposition parties were decriminalized. These efforts contributed significantly to his 2019 Nobel Peace Prize award. In December 2019, the ruling party merged several ethnic group-led parties to create the Prosperity Party as a successor to the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front).

But now the detention of journalists and opposition politicians are again on the rise. State security forces, mobilized to fight armed rebels in parts of the country, have been accused by Amnesty International of extrajudicial killings.

Abiy’s openness to signing peace treaties with previously outlawed, political organizations was a striking departure from policies maintained by his predecessors. The likes of the militant Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), signed historical agreements in 2018 to lay down arms and pursue their struggle via political means. Free and fair elections were promised by 2020. Now the ONLF, among other groups, has voiced its displeasure with what it describes as a “profound halt in the democratization process.”

New coalition

There is now an increasingly loud call for a coalition government formed of the various political entities to be allowed to govern in the interim, after the sitting government’s mandate slated expiration date in October.

“This government cannot rule after October 10th,” Bekele Gerba, deputy leader of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) party recently said. “According to our constitution, parties must convene to discuss how the country is to be governed.”

Prime minister Abiy has balked at this idea. “Those suggesting this are those who prioritize gaining power at any cost, over the aspirations of the people,” he said in a videotaped address last month. “It clashes with what’s legal.”

A demonstrator chants slogans while flashing the Oromo protest gesture during celebrations for Irreecha, the thanksgiving festival of the Oromo people, in Bishoftu town, Oromia region, Ethiopia, October 1, 2017.
A demonstrator chants slogans while flashing the Oromo protest gesture in January 2018.
Image: Reuters/Tiksa Negeri

Opposition representatives calling for shared rule base their requests on interpretations of Article 60 of Ethiopia’s constitution. Section 5 for instance, explains that upon dissolution of the government, “a coalition of parties shall continue as a caretaker government.” The Addis Ababa based Balderas opposition party for its part, announced that it would consider the current government dissolved as of Oct. 10, and has called for protests on that day.

The ruling party’s refusal to consider a coalition could be down to a projected inability to reach an agreement with contenders on policy issues.

Among them, the government’s insistence on using military force to deal with separatist Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebels. The ongoing conflict between the OLA and Ethiopian security forces in the Oromia region’s Wollega and Guji zones, has killed and displaced scores of civilians in the past year and a half.

Oromia-based opposition parties, including the OFC, have long condemned the militarization of the region, especially as disturbing reports of rampant abuses committed against the civilian population continue to trickle out from the conflict zone. They’ve called for the peaceful resolving of a conflict that the government has been accused of attempting to conceal, going as far as shutting down internet and phone services to the conflict zone.

Meanwhile, in the country’s north, a regional government threatens to push on with what would be a bold show of defiance to Abiy’s rule. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), upped the ante by announcing it plans to push on with regional elections in its home base of Tigray, despite the NEBE rendering it clear that it wouldn’t recognize any nonconforming elections.

“We will not forsake the people’s right to vote just to please a dictatorial clique in Addis Ababa,” read a communique on the group’s Facebook page.

The TPLF, which for decades had dominated Ethiopia’s ruling party, split acrimoniously from the rest of government last year and have emerged as an outspoken critic of Abiy’s government. The debacle highlights the fragmented nature of the various sitting government entities.

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