Ethiopia: What Next for Ethiopia's Polls as Deadline Looms?

Community health workers at a handwashing station at a healthcare center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, April 1, 2020.
analysis

Following the postponement of the elections scheduled for August, Ethiopia might have to form an interim government before the term of the current parliament ends in early October.

This would mean incorporating the opposition--that was preparing to challenge Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed in August--into some sort of government of national unity.

This is the assessment of the new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) released on April 16, which says the postponement of the August election due to Covid-19 was a relief when the country was facing oa sensitive time of holding pivotal elections in August after five years of political turmoil.

Board not ready

Notably, the Ethiopian Electoral Board (EEB) was behind schedule in preparations which had raised concerns of possible disability due to a delay beyond the constitutional deadline even before the pandemic.

"Some of the opposition argue that because the delay will run past that date, the administration plans to outstay its legal authority. They say a national unity government must be formed to take the reins when the term of the current parliament expires," says the ICG report.

There have already been encouraging signs that the government is open to working with the opposition in managing the coronavirus threat.

The EEB on March 31 suspended preparations for the vote due to public health risk, and on April 10, parliament approved a five-month state of emergency, giving authorities sweeping powers to battle Covid-19.

The constitution allows the government to invoke a nationwide state of emergency to deal with epidemics.

Opposition parties have agreed to put politics aside and accepted the emergency decree so long as the government does not use it as a tool for political repression.

They have also signalled that they wish to be closely consulted in devising an interim arrangement for governing the country when parliament's term ends.

Dr Abiy should heed their calls, and then work with them to tackle longer-term threats to the country's democratic transition.

The Oromo Liberation Front and the Oromo Federalist Congress--two allied opposition parties from the Oromia Region said they will not "hinder the collective fight against the pandemic," while also making clear that the government must use the state of emergency only to manage the health crisis and not to restrict political space.

Fostering unity

"The possibility of disturbances makes it all the more important for the government to bend over backwards to foster unity among diverse constituencies in support of the political path it chooses through the crisis, even as it arrogates to itself extraordinary unilateral powers," said the report.

Dr Abiy took over in April 2018 after sustained protests against ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) forced his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, to resign.

But while Dr Abiy took over promising to revive multi-party democracy and restore civic liberties that attracted overwhelming goodwill, the opening up of democratic space also gave rise to ethnic nationalism, especially in his home turf of Oromia.

Rival regional, ethnic and political factions have clashed over ideology, power and resources since Dr Abiy took over, killing thousands of people and displacing more than three million.

To revitalise the transition, Dr Abiy created a new ruling party--the Prosperity Party in late 2019 from the EPRDF's ashes--in order to gather all the regional ruling parties into a single organisation.

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