Ethiopian Polls Extended As Crowds Wait to Vote

Ethiopians cast their votes in the general election at a polling centre in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, June 21, 2021.

Addis Ababa — When the polls were supposed to close Monday in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, election workers said turnout was better than expected, and voting had been conducted safely.

But crowds of people still queued, and closing time was extended for hours. Election organizers said logistical problems such as missing poll workers or ballots and bad weather were to blame.

Many people waited all day to cast their ballot in Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's first electoral contest. The vote is widely expected to solidify his rule, despite the beleaguered Tigray region's nonparticipation and the postponement of several other regions' votes for security reasons.

"This is, maybe not the last, but a very important chance to transform to democracy," said Yeshiwas Assefa, chair of Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, the main opposition party.

The ruling Prosperity Party is widely expected to win the election, but Assefa said the new parliament could be the most diverse in Ethiopian history, with opposition candidates expected to win some seats.

But his office counted more than 200 election irregularity complaints Monday, ranging from missing ballots to observers being intimidated at the polls.

Eden Hagos, a 27-year-old receptionist, arrived at the polls at 3 a.m. to line up to vote. By 6 p.m., she was exhausted and hungry, and unsure how much longer she could wait.

"It was supposed to be my first time voting, and I was so excited," she said, in a crowded, wet garden where hundreds of people still queued Monday evening. "But now, I'm angry."

A poll worker marks the finger of an Ethiopian voter in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, June 21, 2021.

Ruling party support

As the sun went down, some other voters said they would wait as long as it took.

Ayalew Gebremichael, a 43-year-old fitness instructor, said in previous elections, opposition parties were repressed, and voters were pressured.

"This is different," he said as the line snaked around a building. "It is more free and fair than the others."

Up a small hill and closer to the ballot boxes, Masho Ayele, 27, and a mother of two, wore a black coronavirus face mask and a pink knit hat. She had been at the polls since 6 a.m. to vote but said she planned to wait all night if necessary.

"In my opinion," she said, "this election is going to change my life."

Ayele said she supports the prime minister and believes the country is already getting stronger under his rule. The election itself, she said, is evidence the country is growing more free, with poll workers telling voters to choose as they wish.

"In the past elections, they told me who to vote for, and I was scared," she explained. "I did what they said."

Conflict in Tigray

But there will be no voting at all in Ethiopia's northern region of Tigray, which has been at war with the federal government for more than seven months.

An Ethiopian voter casts his vote in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, June 21, 2021.

The conflict has killed thousands of people and displaced roughly 2 million. Civilians across the region have reported human rights abuses, like mass killings and rapes. The United Nations says 350,000 people are in danger of starving in a famine that is already under way.

At a traditional coffee shop in Addis Ababa, Habenyom Mekonen, a businessman from Tigray, said as a long-term resident, he can vote in the capital, but he refused to register.

"There is no party that represents us," he explained.

The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) won local elections in Tigray last year in a ballot the federal government said was illegal. Then, after tensions deepened and war broke out, the government declared the TPLF a terrorist organization, making members ineligible to run, even if there was an election in Tigray.

Several other areas are postponing their votes until September, also because of conflicts, and in some cases, missing ballots.

Also missing are European Union observers who declined to attend after being denied permits to use their equipment in Ethiopia.

Analysts say if this election does, in fact, produce a more diverse government, achieving an enduring pluralistic democracy will take time.

"There are politicians who really believe in the electoral process," said Kiya Tsegaye, a lawyer and political analyst. "There are also politicians who believe they can cling to power through shortcuts."

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