The Ethiopia Insight Election Project showed that in spite of claims of a free and fair election, politics as usual continued in much of the country.
Ethiopia Insight dispatched reporters across the country to cover election campaigns beginning in February this year. They shined light on electoral issues in eight of Ethiopia’s regions (excluding Tigray and Harari), and its two autonomous cities Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa.
In-depth investigations revealed that overt and clandestine suppression of political opposition was a common experience, adding to the dominance of the incumbent Prosperity Party.
These types of politics are familiar in Ethiopia, and though the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) described the process as “credible”, the election suffered many problems.
Ethiopia Insight’s reporter in Gambella, Okello Miru, found that the merger of the Gambella People’s Democratic Movement (GPDM) into PP in 2019 was, by and large, a celebrated change in the region. The merger with PP also led to a landslide victory for the incumbent.
A region long-neglected, Okello explained that many had hoped that their participation within the national party would lead to better political representation at the center.
In spite of initial enthusiasm, Okello’s reporting shows how the politics of PP very quickly left many in Gambella feeling sidelined yet again. Though Abiy visited the region in 2018, invited popular opposition leaders back to the region, and engaged local leaders and community members in discussions around issues that matter, his nominal concern for Gambella did not result in much.
Instead, PP pursued policies which Okello showed were directly at odds with the wants and needs of many Gambellans. Specifically, Okello describes how PP’s policies relating to refugees have increased tensions over the last three years. He also illustrated how expressions of dissatisfaction with PP’s politics have been undemocratically suppressed.
In August, Okello expressed alarm at the inflammatory double-speak prevalent during the campaigning period, especially by PP and Ezema opposition parties. Party leaders, he reported, were alternatively pro-Anywaa and pro-Nuer, depending on who they were speaking to.
In 2010, the GPDM party had controversially swept all seats in the legislature and regional council. This June, in familiar EPRDF-era figures, the party, now under PP, again won all of Gambella’s seats in the House of People’s Representatives (HoPR).
In Gog district, where Okello recounted strong anti-Nuer-refugee sentiments among Anywaas, the Gambella People’s Liberation Movement (GPLM), a popular pro-Anywaa party whose leaders had been exiled under the EPRDF and were welcomed back by Abiy, won six council seats, and also faced repression. GPLM also won a council seat in Gambella town and, according to Okello in August, “Many also believe that they won in Jor although Prosperity was declared to have won there officially.”
In Amhara, Ethiopia’s second most populous regional state, Ethiopia Insight’s reporter described a relatively competitive landscape leading up to the 21 June vote.
Since Abiy’s government was formed, and the EPRDF-affiliated Amhara Democratic Party (formerly, the Amhara National Democratic Movement) merged under the PP, Amhara’s regional politics have been dominated by news of violence against ethnic Amharas across the country, growing insecurity in the region, and mounting ethnonationalism. Extreme emotions made for a dynamic campaigning season, and the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) emerged as a major competitor to Amhara-PP (A-PP).
Whereas A-PP was associated with unpopular leadership leftover from the EPRDF, NaMA was newly founded in 2018 and had none of this baggage. NaMA party leaders were brazen in their accusations against long-time ruling party cadres, and presented a bold Amhara-first platform while rejecting the ethno-federalist system set up by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front-led EPRDF. The language of Amhara pride and TPLF villainy had strong resonance and the party generated a large following, especially among young voters and in urban areas.
Aside from NaMA, the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party (Ezema) was also competitive, largely due to its strategy for putting up large numbers of candidates (Ezema registered candidates in all of Amhara’s 138 federal constituencies). Numbers aside, though, Ezema had an image problem in the eyes of many Amhara voters, who expressed suspicions about its leader, Berhanu Nega, and the party’s closeness to politics at the center.
As for the incumbent, our reporter showed that A-PP had its own reputation problem to manage.
Months and weeks before the vote, after massacres against Amharas were reported in North Shewa and in other regions, widespread protests against the ruling party generated huge crowds in Amhara towns and cities. In banners held and slogans shouted, the protesters denounced PP as incapable of protecting Amharas, as well as the Prime Minister directly, who many believed was implicated in the atrocities.
Nevertheless, A-PP took some crucial steps to show that the party’s regional wing was in it to win. Of the 138 candidates A-PP ran for the HoPR, all but one were new. These included fresh leaders like Abebaw Ayalew, a prominent art historian, as well as prominent federal technocrats like Mamo Mihretu, an advisor to the prime minister.
Ethiopia Insight’s reporter also showed how A-PP capitalized on anti-TPLF and nationalist fervor in the months leading up to the vote. The spreading war with Tigray took center stage during the campaign cycle, and A-PP organized rallies and gatherings, where victory against TPLF became a rallying cry for the party and its supporters.
The strategy mostly worked. A-PP won 114 seats in parliament, while NaMA won just five. In the regional council NaMA secured 13 seats, and A-PP won the rest.
NaMA focused the bulk of its campaign activities in urban areas in Amhara and in Addis, and struggled to reach Amhara voters in other regions and in rural areas. It put up relatively few candidates in regional elections, and as a young party it did not enjoy anything like the incumbent’s level of name recognition.
But the party also attributed PP’s victory in Amhara to other factors. One week before the 21 June vote, NaMA issued a joint statement along with Balderas for True Democracy, Hiber Ethiopia Democratic Party, All Ethiopian Unity Organization, and Enat Party complaining about the electoral process to the NEBE. It stated, “Elections do not take place on election day only but in order to evaluate the freedom and fairness of an election, it is necessary to look at the process from beginning to end.”
And from beginning to end, the parties claimed that PP had directly engaged in, and incited its followers to engage in, tactics that negatively impacted opposition parties’ abilities to compete fairly. Methods cited ranged from killing, beating, and imprisoning opposition, interfering with parties’ financial capacities for campaigning, taking down or replacing opposition banners, and destroying property.
In Somali region, the vote was also pushed to 30 September after several parties lodged complaints with the NEBE about the voter registration process.
Ethiopia Insight’s journalist in the region, Abdirahman Ahmed, reported on the flawed voter registration process after interviewing multiple opposition candidates in April and May.
One Freedom and Equality Party (FEP) candidate told Abdirahman that “the opposition parties were not allowed to observe the registration process. In some areas, those we sent to observe the process were even harassed by the district level authorities.”
All parties were supposed to be informed of the arrival and distribution of voter registration cards, but alleged that they were not. Instead, opposition parties said that the majority of cards ended up with the ruling party. Registration cards also fell into the hands of the public and were being traded illegally in Jigjiga.
According to the candidate with FEP who spoke with Ethiopia Insight in April: “Everyday we receive phone calls from people who tell us that they will give us 200 cards if we are willing to pay 2,000 or 3,000 birr.”
Candidates placed blamed NEBE for its inability to operate independently and for relying on the ruling party for financial, technical, and logistical assistance.
With three main opposition parties to S-PP, the 30 September vote looks somewhat competitive. Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), Ezema, and Freedom and Equality Party (NEPA), along with a few independent candidates, campaigned doggedly and used social media to good effect.
Still, S-PP has a significant leg up and most people expect that the party will win, according to Abdirahman. It is better organized, better financed, and more capable of reaching wide audiences, using state and social media as well as holding large campaign events and rallies.
The party also has more candidates running, and is therefore capable of visiting constituencies and speaking with voters directly, which it has done effectively thus far. Moreover, Abdirahman says, the majority of its candidates are considered to be highly qualified and are generally respected in the community.
A leading PP official also admitted that there was no effort to implement a new rule that government workers had to take unpaid leave if they wanted to run for office.
In spite of obvious advantages for S-PP, many do not believe that the elections will be free and fair, even after voter registration issues are addressed. As a local elder and former politician in Degahbour told Ethiopia Insight: “I have known Ethiopian politics for a long time. I will not expect a different result than what we have had. The arrests of the major [opposition] political party leaders in Ethiopia says a lot.”
As Abdirahman reported in June, though, “If the elections are not transparent, the results may lead to tensions in the main towns like Jigjiga, but it is unlikely to lead to substantive violence—most people in the Somali region are tired of conflict, insecurity, and unrest.”
Recent news from Somali region about repressive government actions in response to popular rallies organized by ONLF illustrate this point.
Maya Misikir reported for Ethiopia Insight on the national election in Ethiopia’s newest state, Sidama. There, Maya described the merging of the Sidama Liberation Movement (SLM) party—a party that had been synonymous with Sidama nationalism—with Abiy’s PP as a merger of convenience.
A major incentive for the region’s most popular party to join PP was gaining representation in national and local government, in spite of being a minority party. Maya also reported that SLM leaders were eager to ease divisions during a tumultuous time.
Dukale Lamiso, chairman of SLM who reflected on the merger in an interview this May, said “The party has paid a heavy price for the past 40 years. We wanted to avoid further conflict.”
This August, Ethiopia Insight’s reporter reflected that “SLM members had been given government posts in Sidama, part of a number of conditions they had for the coalition to be realized with PP.” Aside from posts, SLM members and their families who allegedly faced persecution also received compensation from the government.
Though conflict may have been mitigated by merging with the incumbent party, many in Sidama noted that political practices in the party are same-old. Maya wrote that, in between two election seasons, zonal leaders have merely been upgraded to higher levels of government, and efforts at all-inclusive representation in the region’s government have been neglected.
According to Samuel Belayneh, a former activist in Sidama’s Ejetto movement, now deputy head of the region’s Culture, Tourism and Sports Bureau, “Corruption is rampant and appointments are based on group affiliation and loyalty.”
SLM’s merger also upset many former party members, who saw the party as a symbol of defiance against the government. Last January, some members in the party’s inner circle left to form the Sidama Unity Party (SUP). They ran with eight other regional parties against PP in Sidama’s elections in June. However, as Maya reported in May, no opposition party had a popularity that even came close to SLM.
Predictably, PP’s Sidama wing won every seat in the new region’s council.
Similar dynamics were at play in Afar region, as described by local academic Dawud Mohammed, who reported for Ethiopia Insight on elections there in April and May.
The merger with Afar National Democratic Party (ANDP), which had been in power since the 1990s, under PP was viewed likewise as an opportunity for the peripheral region to gain representation at the center—even if they earned just six percent of seats in the HoPR.
People also welcomed the opening up of political space and freedoms under Abiy. As one senior government official, who, ironically, requested anonymity, stated: “During the EPRDF era, we merely followed the direction given to us from the top…Now, we are free to say whatever we want to without having to face ramifications of the big men who control regional politics.”
Popular exiled politicians were invited back to participate in the region’s politics, including members of the Afar Liberation Front (ALF). The reformed ALF party generated some popularity during campaigns, as did Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity (ARDUF) party and the Argoba Democratic Organization.
The Afar People’s Party (APP) also put up strong candidates for the vote, and the party gained a good following during the campaign season, especially in semi-urban centers. Its chairman, Kontie Moussa, rallied against the ANDP-PP alliance, saying that by joining PP “the region has lost its privileges and decision-making autonomy.”
Still, the incumbent party maintained a clear advantage in Afar, like elsewhere. Dawud reported that opposition parties struggled to raise funds and lacked resources to organize and campaign in a widely dispersed region. PP candidates, on the other hand, had no problems securing finances and promoting themselves.
In June, Afar-PP won all contested seats in the HoPR and all but three seats in the regional council, with the others won by the Argoba Democratic Organization.
Voter registration figures in Afar are, however, cause for suspicion. The region reported the highest average number of registered voters per constituency in the country. And yet, it was also stated that only seven percent of women in Afar were registered to vote.
Voter turnout was reportedly 97 percent. Though the vote was largely peaceful in regions where observers had access, there were some cases of election-related violence and accounts of coercion reported in rural areas, with implications of collusion between kebele administrators and local police forces.
APP rejected the election results before they were announced. On the party’s official Facebook page, it stated that the election was “an unsuccessful trial of democracy”. APP has taken steps to file a legal suit, claiming that the ruling party had rigged the vote.
Similarly, on 29 June, in a joint statement, the Council of Afar Opposition Political Parties declared the 21 June election “illegal and undemocratic” and demanded re-election.
Ethiopia Insight’s election reporter in Dire Dawa confirmed that ethnic tensions between majority and minority people in the region have been high leading up to the vote.
Aside from PP candidates, nine political parties and one independent candidate registered to run for parliamentary seats. These are the familiar parties, like Ezema, NaMA, Enat Party, the Freedom and Equality Party, and Hiber.
Absent on the opposition side are the more popular parties in Dire Dawa, including the Oromo nationalist Oromo Liberation Front and Oromo Federalist Congress, who were forced to withdraw from the competition due to their inability to compete fairly.
The popular Somali opposition party, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), whose leaders Abiy invited back from exile, also did not run, saying that ruling party officials had hampered their ability to register candidates.
Nevertheless, several opposition party members who had registered successfully gave statements to Ethiopia Insight expressing their faith in the process. Representing Ezema, Yared Alemayehu told Ethiopia Insight in April that, besides the removal of a few election posters by unknown people, his party had not encountered any significant hurdles and has been generating a significant following in the region.
Kalkidan Adane from Enat Party, which ran eight of the city’s nine urban sub-districts, similarly stated: “We haven’t faced problems”.
Representing NaMA, Nurlign Tsegaye said that opponents and officials in the region were portraying the party unfairly and misrepresenting its platform. He told Ethiopia Insight that it is “difficult for members and supporters to express their views publicly.” Still, Nurlign said that NaMA has had more space to operate freely in Dire Dawa as compared with other regions outside of Amhara and Addis Abeba.
On 21 June, PP took one of two seats in Dire Dawa, and a recount will take place for the other.
In the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNP) region 85 of 104 constituencies voted on 21 June and Prosperity Party won 75 of them. The remaining SSNP constituencies are scheduled to vote on 30 September. The referendum to establish the south-west regional state for Keffa, Sheka, Bench-Sheko, Dawro, West Omo zones, and Konta Special Woreda has also been rescheduled for late September.
Ethiopia Insight’s Kulle Kursha reported on the elections from Dawro, Bale-Awassa, and Wolayta zones. Kulle revealed that opposition party activity was conspicuously low across the southwest.
In the Dawro zone town of Tercha, for example, Kulle noted that the local offices of both Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (Ezema) and the Ethiopian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) were closed throughout his visit in March.
In Bale-Awassa, one resident told Kulle that opposition parties had been “eliminated” there, their office premises locked up. The informant stated: “The government follows up opposition party affiliates, via spies, and arrests them.”
In contrast to opposition inactivity, in the year leading up to the election, southwestern residents noted an increase in PP government attention and investments. Initiatives included varying infrastructure projects such as the building of an airport in Aman, which government officials visited and publicly inaugurated on June 17, during the campaign silence period.
As Kulle wrote, considering the zone’s underdevelopment, the PP’s investment in infrastructure ahead of the vote “was a clear way to demonstrate concern and get support in the election.”
In Wolayta, opposition activity was much more vigorous—though 21 June results were the same in the end. One party that had engendered significant popular support was Wolayta Tussa Federalist Front (WTFF). The party’s chief secretary told Kulle that the party’s offices had been vandalized and were forced to close down in many rural towns. He also stated that leaders had been arrested, and government officials had surveyed party members and offices and seized communication equipment.
Following the announcement of election results for 85 constituencies, WTFF along with other opposition parties, warned that it would boycott the upcoming vote in September, claiming that PP was employing unfair tactics.
In spite of these claims, Kulle said in August that, in most of the south except Gedeo, “voters’ calculation was that opposition political parties were too fragile and couldn’t shoulder government responsibility and they voted for PP as a choice of last resort.” Kulle also noted that errors and shortages in voting ballots “delayed delivery and benefited PP in one way or another.”
Benishangul-Gumuz region (BGRS) had the nation’s lowest voter turnout numbers on 21 June, at just 55 percent. The remote region has been afflicted by serious conflict over the last three years, and more than half of its constituencies were unable to participate in polling due to security reasons.
The Benishangul-Gumuz People’s Democratic Unity Front (BGPDUF), which merged with PP in 2019, is controlled by the constitutionally recognized indigenous people of the region. This has been a major source of upset for non-indigenous residents, including especially Oromos and Amharas.
Amharas, in particular, have organized and capitalized on upset over underlying political arrangements, which have been amplified by recent violence perpetrated by Gumuz militia. The NaMA party has gained a significant following among Amharas in the region. In campaigns, the party used overt nationalist rhetoric and encouraged Amahara settlers to occupy Metekel Zone, which some party members claim should be part of the Amhara region.
In an interview with Ethiopia Insight this May, a Berta supporter of PP in Bambasi, Assosa said that NaMA party leaders were “irresponsible” and had “wrongly directed the younger generation” by taking advantage of discontent, spreading victimization ideologies, and magnifying frustrations in the region.
Seven NaMA leaders were arrested in Assosa this year. Ethiopia Insight’s reporter also shared that other opposition leaders had been locked up in BGRS in the months leading up to the election, including members of the Benishangul-Gumuz People’s Liberation Movement (BPLM) in Assosa, who had been arrested without due cause.
One member of the BPLM leader told Ethiopia Insight in August that, “The justice institutions have become a political machine for the PP government. We are easily arrested and stay in prison for months without formal charge.”
Parties also accused the government of obstructing campaign meetings, destroying party property and materials, and restricting their movement under the pretext of security issues. Additionally, parties accused PP of using public resources to campaign in the region, saying that public budgets were used for allowances, fuel, car and event space hires, and for purchasing meals.
On 21 June, voting took place only in Assosa Zone, excluding Oda Buldiglu Wereda, and Mao Komo Special Wereda.
PP won 22 seats at the regional council and three of nine parliamentary seats; two HoPR seats will be rerun and two were reserved for minority peoples’ parties. The one reserved in Mao Komo Special Wereda was uncontested.
Metekel and Kamashi zones—with 33 and 20 seats respectively out of the region’s 100 in the State Council—were unable to participate, and ongoing violence in the two zones lead our reporter to speculate whether voting can take place there on 30 September.
Without those seats in play, it may not be possible to establish a regional government.
Ethiopia Insight’s reporter in Oromia, Ermias Tasfaye, revealed that political suppression and asymmetrical applications of electoral codes were a major theme in Ethiopia’s most populous region. Unfair treatment privileged the incumbent ahead of popular opposition parties.
For example, in February 2020, Ermias reported that the opposition party, the OFC, was denied permission to use a stadium in Jimma “because the campaign season hadn’t officially begun”. PP, however, held a rally in the town on the same day.
Complaints against NEBE’s revised registration regulations, which were seen by some opposition actors as prohibitively complex, were issued by multiple opposition parties in Oromia. In total, the NEBE denied accreditation to a dozen parties in the region for not meeting registration requirements, half of whom filed charges. Court proceedings took months. In April, the Supreme Court ordered the board to re-register certificates for two parties, but it was too late for them to campaign effectively.
Of the parties that the NEBE certified, reports of harassment, arbitrary arrests, and office shutdowns were common. The OFC alone claimed that more than 300 of its senior officials and party members had been arrested, and over 200 of its offices closed down. The OLF alleged that over 100 of its offices were shut down in five regions and that more than 880 of its members had been arrested since 2020, including more than 100 senior officials arrested at the party’s headquarters.
In March, both the OFC and OLF announced they would be unable to participate in the election. The parties accused the incumbent of suppression and accused NEBE of working in cahoots with PP.
A report released by the Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa (HRLHA) on 24 March gives credence to the parties’ accounts. It confirmed multiple party-office closures and verified that almost all OLF and OFC candidates had been incarcerated. Like the parties, the HRLHA concluded that the crackdown was organized by PP, whose aim was “to push them out of the game”.
In Oromia, the PP put up candidates in all 170 constituencies where voting took place on 21 June, and ran without any opposition in 103 of those. The party won 167 seats, with a reported registered voter turnout of 96 percent.
Large areas in southern and western Oromia were too insecure to participate in the June vote. Voting in these constituencies has been rescheduled for 30 September, though ongoing violence and an escalating conflict with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) make it doubtful that a satisfactory process can occur.
As Ermias wrote:
Suffice to say that, in Oromia… it was a far fall from the “fair” process that Abiy had promised in 2018.
On 21 June, elections were held in 425 out of 547 constituencies. A total of 9,505 candidates, including 9,357 political party nominees representing 20 national parties and 33 regional parties, and 148 independent candidates, competed.
Voting has been rescheduled for 30 September in more than 80 HoPR constituencies—not including the constituencies of the Tigray region—due to logistical and security concerns. The NEBE announced that it would also rerun the election for ten HoPR seats due to voting irregularities during the 21 June vote.
In this first round, the incumbent Prosperity Party won 410 seats out of 425 in parliament. In regional and city council elections, PP won nearly 98 percent of contested seats (1,625 of 1,664).
Even before the NEBE announced results, Prime Minister Abiy declared on social media that it was Ethiopia’s first-ever “free and fair” election—as if he was a neutral bystander. As it turned out, formal complaints against the process and results were filed to NEBE in at least 201 constituencies, while much of the opposition considered the process so illegitimate that they did not even take part.
Criticisms by those who did were leveled against the NEBE that ranged from accusations of blatant partiality to unclear communication and woeful incompetency. Concerns have also been raised about significant differences in official voter registration figures. The NEBE did not share official data about the total vote, and the numbers it reported at regional levels are suspiciously high.
Parties also made a variety of accusations directly against the incumbent PP. There were countless citations of intimidation, violence, and suppression that parties have alleged against state actors and affiliated regional authorities.
Common also were complaints about an unbalanced playing field, which some saw as even more pronounced in this election as compared with the past, as a result of the party’s absorption of major regional parties.
Many parties also claimed that PP misused state resources and that by conducting campaign activities and fundraising events while in office, PP violated election codes. One cited example of this was the event organized on 15 March at Millennium Hall in Addis in which PP raised over 1.5 billion ETB (more than 34 million USD) to support its initiatives.
Civil society observers confirmed concerns about harassment, intimidation, incarceration and threats of detention for opposition party members.
Based on reports from CSOs, political parties’ complaints, and press conferences, in their national elections report, the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute collected more than 230 allegations of election-related violence in almost all regions.
Cases included targeted harassment and intimidation of opposition candidates and their family members, including undue arrests, unwarranted searches, physical assault, and attempted and successful assassination attempts. Many reports, including most on election day, implied collusion between the state actors, rural militias, kebele leaders, and local police.
In spite of all its efforts to rebrand, PP used an array of tactics straight out of the EPRDF playbook to win.
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This is the final article of the Ethiopia Insight Election Project (EIEP), a series of in-depth reported pieces from across Ethiopia in our ‘Elections 2021’ section that analyzes issues related to this year’s polls.
Main photo: Election banner; Fana.
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