Ethiopia election board proposes August vote

Robbie Corey-Boulet
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel peace laureate, has won plaudits abroad for his reforms. But domestic critics accuse him of authoritarian tendencies, and the peace process he launched with Eritrea has stalled (AFP Photo/Phill Magakoe)

Addis Ababa (AFP) - Ethiopia's electoral board on Wednesday proposed holding landmark national polls in August, drawing criticism over the timing -- at the height of the rainy season -- of the first competitive elections in 15 years.

The elections are a critical step in the political transition to real democracy being managed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was appointed in 2018 after several years of anti-government protests.

Abiy, this year's Nobel Peace Prize laureate, believes the polls will give him a mandate for wide-ranging political and economic reforms. He has repeatedly said he expected them to take place in May or June, and reiterated it over the weekend during a visit to South Africa.

But a draft schedule distributed Wednesday by the electoral board calls for voting on August 16.

Voter registration would begin in April and campaigning in May.

Soleyana Shimeles, a spokeswoman for the board, told AFP feedback would be solicited from political parties and other stakeholders before publishing a final schedule on February 1.

"They're debating now and getting inputs," she told AFP. "They'll take the feedback and publish the schedule by February 1."

Asked if she expected the schedule to be altered by the end of the month, she said "not much".

- Parties cry foul -

During a forum Wednesday at which the schedule was unveiled, multiple political party and civil society representatives raised concerns about the timing, saying the rains would wreak havoc with logistics.

"Most roads are not accessible in Ethiopia during the rainy season. This makes it difficult for poll workers, observers and most importantly the voters themselves," said Befeqadu Hailu, a prominent blogger and human rights activist.

"It will also be difficult for political organisations in most areas to hold public rallies," he added.

Participants also questioned the readiness of the electoral board and the security situation in Ethiopia, which has struggled to curb ethnic violence.

Representatives of two political parties, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ezema, told AFP they would ask for the date to be pushed back until late August in hope the rains might be less severe.

"We asked to at least postpone 10 days, until August 26, because the rain will reduce in that time," said OLF public relations chief Kejela Merdasa.

But even critics acknowledged that lawmakers' mandates expire in September, making a longer delay untenable.

Natnael Fekele, a spokesman for the Ezema party, said it was encouraging that a calendar was taking shape.

"So far we have been in limbo. We didn't know exactly when the election was going to happen, but now we know so we have at least a tentative schedule," he said.

Abiy rose through the ranks of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ruling coalition, which dominated parliament and allowed only one competitive election after it took power in the early 1990s, which was in 2005.

The EPRDF and its allies won all 547 seats in parliament in 2015

However the coalition technically no longer exists following Abiy's decision to transform it into a single political group dubbed the Ethiopian Prosperity Party.

The once-dominant Tigray People's Liberation Front has rejected being part of the new party.