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By Dawit Endeshaw
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Opposition politicians in Ethiopia are warning against a delay to national elections due in 2020 that would be the first under reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed but are under threat from an explosion of regional ethnic rivalries.
Earlier this month, the election board said insecurity, which has driven 2.4 million people out of their homes according to the United Nations, could delay next year's parliament vote.
A national census has already been postponed twice, potentially undermining logistics for the polls including the drawing up of constituencies.
Critics say postponing the national vote could cause an adverse social reaction, further fuel regional conflicts, and damage Abiy's democratic credentials.
"If the government is going to postpone the general election ... it will anger the public," former political prisoner Merera Gudina told Reuters by phone. He chairs the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress party from a region, Oromia, at the heart of anti-government protests in recent years.
"Once the public begins to express its anger ... no one will have the means or the power to control it."
Ethiopia's 100 million citizens are seeing unprecedented political change. Abiy, who took power last year after his predecessor suddenly resigned, has freed journalists and activists, lifted bans on political parties, and prosecuted officials accused of gross human rights abuses.
Those reforms followed three years of sporadic deadly protests against the government in which hundreds died and thousands were imprisoned.
Local elections last year were postponed due to unrest.
Election board chairwoman Birtukan Mideksa acknowledged earlier this month that preparations were behind schedule for the 2020 election, due in May.
"If the security of the country is not going to improve, we can't tell voters to go and vote," said the former judge, once given a life sentence for activism but appointed by Abiy to head the board. "There are many internally displaced people."
A spokeswoman for the board, Soleyana Shimeles, told Reuters on Friday, however, that election officials were working on the assumption the poll would proceed as planned.
One Addis-based diplomat said delaying the vote might fuel tensions instead of buying time to cool them.
"The conflicts in the country are escalating instead of improving," he told Reuters.
Belete Mola, vice president of a new party to represent the large Amhara ethnic group, said the government was playing with fire. "This is an illegitimate government and it has no mandate to postpone the election," the official from National Movement of Amhara told Reuters.
Debretsion Gebremichael, chairman of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), and vice president of Tigray regional state, also warned that postponement could have "grave consequences." The TPLF is part of the governing coalition.
"Not holding the election on time ... is unconstitutional," he told a television station. "It means the Ethiopia government after 2020 is illegitimate."
(Writing by George Obulutsa and Katharine Houreld; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)