Ethiopian elections: In the eyes of the international community, this vote ‘is already tainted’

Workers of the National Election Board of Ethiopia set up a tent to be used as a polling station, ahead of Ethiopia's parliamentary and regional elections in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, June 20, 2021.
Workers of the National Election Board of Ethiopia set up a tent to be used as a polling station, ahead of Ethiopia's parliamentary and regional elections in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, June 20, 2021. © Baz Ratner, REUTERS

Ethiopians vote in general elections on Monday, with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seeking a popular mandate after his 2018 rise to power ended decades of authoritarian rule. But while Abiy’s victory is seen as probable, the international community is unlikely to see the election as legitimate amid voting delays, ongoing violence in Tigray and a boycott by some opposition parties. FRANCE 24 spoke to William Davison, an Ethiopia expert at the International Crisis Group.


Abiy was initially fêted abroad, winning the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending two decades of hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea soon after he took charge of his country’s ruling coalition the previous year. He revoked bans on opposition parties and freed thousands of political prisoners.

Now Abiy is the subject of amplifying international criticism over alleged rights violations in the Tigray conflict – while journalists and opposition figures say he is curtailing the freedoms he once championed.  

FRANCE 24 discussed the June 21 elections with William Davison, an Ethiopia expert at the International Crisis Group. He said that Abiy is likely to win, but that – with a boycott by several opposition parties and voting delayed in 110 out of Ethiopia’s 547 constituencies, encompassing Tigray, due to security reasons – the polls will not legitimise his rule in the eyes of international observers.

Why are the elections being held now after they were delayed from their original date in August 2020?

The original decision was to delay them due to the pandemic and the ruling was that the relevant government authorities would assess when the health conditions were safe to restart electoral preparations. A schedule was set for holding the election between nine to 12 months after the pandemic was considered to be sufficiently under control.

Authorities had an original June 5 date for the delayed elections. But then because of the various logistical and security problems they pushed the June 5 date until June 21.

How likely is it that Abiy will get the mandate he seeks in these elections?

Obviously, you need at least 50 percent + 1 of those constituencies to form a government, and it looks very likely that the ruling party will achieve that, despite the various problems. There are several reasons why that’s the case. If you look at the situation in Oromia – which is Ethiopia’s most populous region and therefore has the most federal parliament constituencies, 178 – because of the political circumstances there, there is growing violence there in the form of an insurgency. But there is also a lack of electoral competition against the ruling party because the two main opposition parties have boycotted the election, saying that the conditions were unfair and that they have suffered repression, including the arrest of leaders and activists. 

Even though there has been a drop in popular support for Abiy in Oromia, because of those electoral conditions – the lack of competing opposition parties – the ruling party is almost by default likely to win a large number of those 178 seats. So, you can see there’s quite an easy path to a majority for the ruling Prosperity Party. 

I think it’s evident that in the eyes of the international community, this election is already tainted. There is the civil war in Tigray and the consequent lack of an election there, as well as the situation in Oromia, and the fact that insecurity elsewhere – notably in the Benishangul-Gumuz region – is preventing polling from taking place.

Then there are other security problems elsewhere and some logistical problems – some of them related to security but also just things like misprinted ballot papers – which means that some constituencies won’t vote until September.

All of those factors add up to a process which really lacks credibility in the eyes of the international community. It’s not going to be an election that meets international standards. The EU is not even sending an observation mission because they could not agree on aspects of the mandate with the government.

In terms of popular legitimacy, those who support the PM and those from opposition parties still competing in the election, consider this to be a legitimate process and therefore they will consider the subsequently formed government to be legitimate – assuming there are not significant opposition complaints about the process of voting and counting itself. It will be legitimate in their eyes, but for any of the parties and their support base who are not participating in the election – and of course the electorate in Tigray – they will consider this to be a farce of a democratic process. 

Other than voting not being scheduled in Tigray, what impact might the conflict there have on Monday’s elections?

The fact that there is no election and a civil war there is an indication of how troubled the situation is overall, but it will have no direct impact on the rest of the election. It heightens security concerns about the election, but there are reasons for heightened security other than the ongoing conflict in Tigray. 

There are some political ramifications of the conflict, however. I think the PM received a boost in some quarters for taking the fighting to the TPLF (Tigray People's Liberation Front), an unpopular party in the rest of Ethiopia. I think that’s particularly the case in the Amhara region, where there was a particularly vitriolic opposition to the TPLF.

It’s generally understood that the war has been fairly popular, particularly at the outset; that the reasons the government gave for the war and the narrative they created – including that the TPLF ‘attacked our soldiers in their sleep’ – has been quite successful in mobilising public support for the war. More generally, being seen as a strong wartime leader is something which will have boosted Abiy’s reputation among some sections of the Ethiopian electorate.

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