Ethiopians are voting in a crucial parliamentary election taking place against the backdrop of war and famine in the northern Tigray region, with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed expected to cement his hold on power.
Voting began in the capital Addis Ababa soon after the expected start time of 6 am (03:00 GMT) with voters in face masks wrapped in blankets against the pre-dawn chill. Electoral officials in purple vests sprayed voters’ hands with sanitizer before checking their IDs against the register as part of measures against COVID. Polls will close at 6pm (15:00GMT).
“Many Ethiopians went to the polls very early in the morning, as early as 4 am in many places, to cast their vote,” said Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Adow from Addis Ababa.
“The electoral commission has increased the number of polling stations across the country to avoid large crowds from gathering at polling centers to reduce the risk of spreading COVID but also to hasten the voting process.”
It is the first electoral test for Abiy Ahmed, 44, who rose to power in 2018 championing a democratic revival in Africa’s second-most populous country, and a break from its authoritarian past.
“This election is different,” said Milton Gebregziabher, a 45-year-old travel agent voting in the center of Addis Ababa.
“There are several parties to choose from. In the past there was just one, we did not have the luxury of choice.”
Abiy, a Nobel Peace laureate who freed political prisoners, welcomed back exiles and ended a long cold war with neighboring Eritrea before sending troops to confront the dissident leadership of Tigray late last year, has promised this election will be Ethiopia’s most competitive in history, free of the repression that marred previous ballots.
But the specter of famine caused by the ongoing fighting in Tigray, and the failure to stage elections on schedule in about one-fifth of constituencies, means that promise is in doubt.
“I believe this election will shine a light of democracy on Ethiopia,” said Yordanos Berhanu, a 26-year-old accountant at the head of a queue of hundreds.
“As a young Ethiopian, I (have) hope for the future of my country, and believe voting is part of that,” she said before slipping her ballot papers into a purple plastic box for the national vote and a light green one for the regional election.
In Bahir Dar, the capital of the northwestern Amhara region which neighbors Tigray, voters said peace and economic growth were the priorities.
“No matter who wins, we want peace,” said 25-year-old jobseeker Mirkuz Gashaw.
“As a citizen, I hope our country prospers and grows,” said first-time voter Etsubdink Sisay, 18, who was lining up with her mother.
Once votes are counted, national MPs will elect the prime minister, who is head of government, as well as the president – a largely ceremonial role.
Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party has fielded the most candidates for national parliamentary races and is the firm favorite to win a majority and form the next government.
Security ramped up
Security was ramped up for the election, with police marching in force in Addis Ababa over the weekend and reinforcements deployed across the country.
The election has been delayed twice – once because of the coronavirus pandemic, and again to allow more time to organize the ballot across a huge nation.
Some 38 million Ethiopians are registered to vote but polls will not open in nearly one-fifth of Ethiopia’s 547 constituencies. Some areas have been deemed too insecure – plagued by armed conflicts and ethnic violence – while in others logistical setbacks made arranging a vote in time impossible.
The second round of voting is to take place on September 6 to accommodate many of the districts not taking part Monday.
But there is no election date set for Tigray, where UN agencies say 350,000 people face famine conditions, and atrocities have been documented.
The northernmost region represents 38 seats in the national parliament and has been governed by an interim administration since November, when Abiy sent troops in, promising a swift campaign to overthrow its ruling party.
Seven months later, the conflict drags on, damaging Abiy’s standing as a peacemaker and overshadowing a vote meant to broadcast Ethiopia’s democratic intent.
In a handful of places where the vote is going ahead on Monday, opposition parties are boycotting in protest, reducing some constituencies to a one-horse race.
Even in the best of times, organizing smooth elections is a tall order in Ethiopia, a huge country hobbled by poor infrastructure.
Observers have pointed out that logistical support usually comes from the military, which is largely tied up in Tigray, leaving organizers short on manpower.
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But after months of setbacks and delays, election officials said they were ready for Monday’s vote, which involves more than 40 parties and 9,500 candidates.
Vote counting is due to start soon after polls close, but results are not expected for days.
Concerns about credibility have been raised, with traditional ally the United States warning that excluding so many voters risked confidence in the process.
Meanwhile, on Monday, the UN rights chief voiced alarm at continued reports of “serious violations” in the Tigray region, by all parties in the conflict, including continued abuses by Eritrean troops.
“I am deeply disturbed by continued reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights violations and abuses against civilians by all parties to the conflict,” Michelle Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council, pointing to “extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, sexual violence against children as well as adults, and forced displacement”.