Ethiopia delays pivotal election amid ethnic violence, Tigray war

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Ethiopia has delayed a critical general election that was to be held on June 5 and stands as a critical test for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the hopes for democracy in Africa's second-largest country by population.

Why it matters: Ethiopia is in the midst of a wave of ethnic violence, a vicious war in the northern Tigray region, and an existential debate about how power should be divided between the regions, ethnic groups and the state.

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  • "Abiy's supporters believe he's the one man who can bring Ethiopia beyond the ethno-federal system that they argue threatens the country's survival," says William Davison, Ethiopia analyst for the International Crisis Group.

  • But since Abiy took power in 2018, conflict between regional parties and the national government has only increased, as have clashes between ethnic groups.

  • And while Abiy has revolutionized Ethiopian politics, he hasn't yet faced the voters. He desperately needs an election win to bolster his domestic legitimacy and restore some level of international support.

Driving the news: Ethiopia's electoral commission predicted a delay of less than three weeks, but the logistical issues that forced the delay — registering voters, training electoral staff, distributing ballots — are tied to security challenges that won't be resolved anytime soon.

  • Nor will the grievances of the opposition parties that have declared a boycott.

  • "Ethiopia will face significant challenges in organizing an effective election whenever it's done," Johnnie Carson, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, tells Axios.

  • Flashback: Abiy previously postponed the elections, which had been scheduled for last August, citing the pandemic.

That delay helped spark the war in Tigray, as the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) claimed Abiy was illegitimately extending his term and defied him by proceeding with regional elections.

  • After an alleged TPLF raid on a military base last November, Abiy launched a military offensive paired with a telecommunications blackout that has kept the conflict largely shrouded in darkness.

  • The reports that have emerged are horrific, including allegations of ethnic cleansing and systematic sexual violence.

  • The state of play: Ethiopian troops swiftly ousted the TPLF from the regional capital, but are now battling an insurgency.

Troops from neighboring Eritrea have been repeatedly accused of carrying out atrocities in Tigray, and the State Department said Saturday that they remain in the country despite Abiy's pledge that they would leave.

  • Their presence "further undermines Ethiopia’s stability and national unity," the State Department said. Washington also accused the Ethiopian government of blocking humanitarian access to Tigray.

  • Between the lines: Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to make peace with Eritrea. Now they've joined forces against the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics before Abiy took power in 2018.

There will be no voting in Tigray if the elections proceed. It will also be hard to hold them in parts of Oromia, Ethiopia's largest state, where another insurgency is raging.

  • The two main parties representing Abiy's own Oromo ethnic group planned to boycott the elections due to alleged government repression.

  • The EU recently canceled plans to observe the election, saying it hadn't received necessary assurances from the government.

  • Access to Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram was blocked after the delay was announced, according to NetBlocks.

The bottom line: Abiy promised a new dawn in which Ethiopia's politics would be defined by national, rather than ethnic, identity.

  • But Ethiopia's transition must come through negotiation rather than force, Davison contends — or else a prime minister heralded as a democratic reformer will instead become a new brand of authoritarian.

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