Ethiopia's Abiy predicts peaceful poll in final campaign rally

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Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed outlined his vision of a peaceful, united and prosperous Ethiopia on Wednesday at a final campaign rally ahead of key elections next week.

The upbeat speech, in the southern town of Jimma, comes at a time of widespread ethnic unrest and economic difficulties, as well as a conflict in the northern Tigray region where the UN warns 350,000 people face famine.

Abiy's rhetoric, though, went down well in a packed stadium full of cheering supporters eager for Monday's polls to get underway and to deliver victory for his Prosperity Party.

For Abiy, the June 21 poll is an opportunity to win a popular mandate after rising to power in 2018 following years of anti-government protest.

Despite being billed as a nationwide poll, elections will not be held in nearly one-fifth of the country's 547 constituencies, including all 38 seats in Tigray and 64 others across the Horn of Africa nation.

Opposition parties in some pivotal regions are boycotting the election, the sixth since the end of military rule in Ethiopia 30 years ago.

Most of the delayed votes are scheduled for September 6 but no date has been set yet for Tigray.

Fighting there continues more than seven months after Abiy ordered troops into the region after accusing its former ruling party of orchestrating attacks on federal army camps.

- Home crowd -

Wearing sunglasses and a tuxedo fashioned from traditional local cloth, Abiy spoke in a mixture of his native tongue -- Afan Oromo, the language of the region -- and the national Amharic language, to dismiss international concerns surrounding Monday's vote.

"When the entire world is saying we will fight on election day, we will instead teach them a lesson," he declared.

"I say to all Ethiopians (engaged) in the struggle to ensure a peaceful, democratic and prosperous Ethiopia: as long as Ethiopians stand together in one spirit and one heart, there is no force on earth that can stop us."

"Our issue isn't protecting Ethiopia's unity, rather it is making Ethiopia the strength of the Horn of Africa," he said.

For Abiy, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his detente with Eritrea, it was something of a homecoming, and a guaranteed supportive crowd, as he hails from the nearby village of Beshasha.

Residents of Jimma echoed Abiy's expectations of a peaceful and democratic election that will signal a new dawn and confound critics at home and abroad.

"The country will be stable after this election," said schoolteacher and excited voter Edile Abbajobir. "We are counting down the days to go and vote."

Self-employed Kedir Jemal said those predicting violence are simply "wired to violence" themselves.

"The election will be peaceful," he said.

The United States has criticised the decision to push ahead with twice-delayed elections, while the European Union has said it will not send observers as it could not guarantee their freedom to work independently.

Staging the polls in the vast country of 110 million is a logistical challenge at the best of times, worsened by unrest, conflict and Covid-19.

The coronavirus pandemic triggered the initial 10-month postponement of the original August 2020 vote, while technical hitches forced a subsequent weeks-long delay last month.

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