The Importance of Ethiopian Elections
Amb Gurjit Singh

The Parliamentary elections in Ethiopia held on 21 June 2021 come at a very important time for the future of Ethiopia, and the Horn of Africa. With 120 million people, Ethiopia is the second most populous African country. It was economically growing rapidly with 8.4% (2019) falling to 6.1% (2020)1. It provided stability in the region.

In 2018 after protests by the populous Oromo people which are 34.4%2, an Oromo leader Abiy Ahmed was drafted in as Prime Minister in the existing parliament elected in 2015. He came in with immense hope, set about dismantling coercive measures, political restrictions, internet bans and enmity with Eritrea. This breath of fresh air, brought expectations for a regularization of Ethiopia, and the unleashing of its vitality.

The peace arrangement with Eritrea led to PM Abiy Ahmed winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. In hindsight, that looks like the easy thing to have done. Maintaining the peace and building the country based on easing of restrictions has come at great price. The older elite of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) essentially comprised of the ruling parties of four ethnic nationalities. The Amhara (27%) Oromo, Tigray (6%) and the Southern Nations region had held power since overthrow of the Mengistu dictatorship in 1991. The leadership was in the hands of a younger TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) leader from the Tigray, Meles Zenawi, till his early demise, in 2012. He was followed by Haile Meriam Desalegn, his Deputy Prime Minister, who came from the multiethnic Southern region. Under EPRDF elections were held regularly. The first was in 1992 after taking over. Then after the Constituent Assembly was elected in 1994 and new Constitution adopted, elections were held in 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015. 3 The 2005 election was contested by opposition parties who were then denied their rightful place. In 2010 and 2015 the ruling EPRDF coalition, won almost all the seats in parliament and in the regional states.

The transition to Abiy Ahmed was within the existing parliament as an intra-party manoeuver and elections should have been held in 2020. However, due to political upheavals, the covid crisis, and the unsure consolidation of the new leadership, the election was deferred by a year and was thus held in late June. Meanwhile, Ethiopia suffered a series of convulsions. Besides the pandemic the TPLF, which had led the EPRDF coalition since 1991, refused to join the new Prosperity Party, created by PM Abiy Ahmed. This sought to merge the constituents of the EPRDF into one unitary party, the TPLF decided to hold its own elections in Tigray, when the national elections were postponed in 20204.

In a series of mishaps and errors of judgement, a civil war broke out in Tigray, since November 2019, leading to many civilian casualties, and a continuing problem with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. 5 This continues to attract negative attention to Ethiopia internationally. The association of Eritrea, in the suppression of its traditional enemy in the Tigray by supporting the government of Addis Ababa, created a new situation in the Horn.6 This brought into question the ability of Ethiopia and its leadership to maintain the peace so hard won with Eritrea.

The lifting of restrictions, and the reemergence of banned political parties, particularly in the populous Oromo region, led to other challenges. Sectarian strife grew in several parts of Oromia, Amhara, Somali and Benushungul Gumuz. Suddenly, peaceful Ethiopia, was like a boiling cauldron, on several fires burning at one time. The hopeful administration, nevertheless, said that they would continue to seek elections and prospects for peaceful reform. This election in June, the results of which are now awaited was held for the first time since, PM Abiy Ahmed came to office in 2018. It is also the first since the creation in 2019 of the 10th Province Sidama which separately participated in the elections.7 A separate referendum to create the 11th South West Regional State also out of the Southern Region is now held.8 The Southern Region may also see a new Northern and Central Region and Damotic/Omotic Region emerge later under the Prosperity Party ideas.

However, despite the election commission being headed by a former opposition leader and opposition parties being allowed to register and participate, the impact of the election is still being weighed.9 In the short term the election, brings a sense of relief to the peaceful parts of Ethiopia who see in it a harbinger of a new opportunity to get back to political unity and economic development. The election results are likely to determine the structure of Ethiopia, and consolidate the power of the Prosperity Party. For the medium term this election could create a structure for political dialogue, through a new parliament with some opposition, which may then support a reform process for which Abiy Ahmed was brought in and which may give him the legitimacy to do so.

The question that arises is, the conduct of the elections in a delayed manner in some parts of the country, and not being held in Tigray, will it allow the cohesion that is required? A reform process with parts of the country unable to participate in the popular vote may decrease the value of the process underway. People are hopeful despite the violence and attacks and counter attacks particularly in Tigray. Analysts see the cleavages in Ethiopia to be serious that unity efforts may remain constrained.

An issue which the election is supposed to guide is whether Ethiopia will move from its existing system of ethno-nationalism, on a confederal principle of the Constitution. Each regional State is led by an ethnic nationalism, in which other nationalities are free to live in. For the EPRDF this was a long transitional phase, which took almost a generation and yet looks incomplete.10 But it had held the peace, though multi-party democracy did not flourish. Eritrea, was a part of Ethiopia. It was allowed to peacefully secede in 1993 through a referendum. The new forces want more political unification, based on political ideas rather than ethnic and linguistic differences and not allow any further confederal ideas.

The 2021 election while besmirched with civil strife and limited organisation in several parts nevertheless sees higher and more open political participation. Many parties which were based overseas returned in 2018. 46 parties registered for the election putting 9505 candidates but most were for the Regional Sates. 17 are national parties, 29 regional ones and 18 contested in Addis Ababa.11 This number is quite unprecedented.

However, Opposition parties complained of harassment, imprisonment and persecution,12 particularly in the Oromo region. Some Oromo parties did not participate in the elections mainly because the leaders are in jail for opposition to the Prosperity Party. This is a blip, because one of Abiy’s roles was to bring in the Oromo majority into power. Since the Oromos are split among several parties and all of them do not back the Prime Minister, he is more likely to be elected as a leader of wider regional preferences rather than only the Oromo. This may suit his plans, but the fact that Oromo parties boycotted the election will impact the political cohesion that is sought.

Despite the election commission which is now considered more independent, levels of voter registration were not fulfilling. From the population of 120 million, only about 38 million registered to vote.13 This is attributed to the fact that Ethiopia has a very youthful population, many of whom are not yet in voting age.

Another important aspect is that this will be the first election in which the social media is playing a major role, in earlier years, there was no social media presence, and at most times, even SMS was banned. The increasing accessibility of social media in Ethiopia, which links to their large diaspora is now the primary platform for information, critical political education, participation, and even exclusion. Social media platforms are easier to use for misinformation as in other countries, and are often in a negative role. That is not unique to Ethiopia.14

Among the other problems has been that refugee camps of domestic refugees, close to 2 million people across Ethiopia, have not been able to participate in the polling. In several conflict-ridden areas, even beyond Tigray, voter registration has been poor. In several constituencies election will be conducted in August -September.15

Due to insecurity, and logistical issues, about 20% of the constituencies, could not vote to hand out the election commission aimed smooth voting. On 21 June the election commission admitted that several opposition parties complained of intimidation, particularly in the regions of Amhara and southern was apprehensive that these complaints needed to be investigated and set right. Otherwise, the results and quality of the election could be in question.16

Voters and friends that this author has spoken to in Addis Ababa said that the election is their hope for peace. The new parliament is expected to open the doors towards unity, rather than ethnic loyalties. They want to believe that Abiy Ahmed and the Prosperity party will show the skeptical world that a fractious Ethiopiacan yet unite. The elections seem to be like a band aid on the fractured polity of Ethiopia. How much impact can they leverage through statesmanship and a healing touch now remains a troubling question. The spirit of avenging past wrongs needs a democratic salve which Ethiopians long for.

  1. Ethiopia Economic Outlook, AFDB,
  2. Ethiopia People 2020, Countries of the World,
  3. Elections in Ethiopia, African Elections database,
  4. Governing party in Ethiopia’s Tigray sweeps regional polls, Al Jazeera,
  5. Gurjit Singh, In Ethiopia, an unnecessary war over federalism, ORF,
  6. Gurjit Singh, All Eyes on the Horn of Africa and its Balancing Act, VIF,
  7. Ethiopia referendum: Sidama poll could test Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, BBC,
  8. Splitting Ethiopia’s Southern Nations Region into four could promote peace, The Africa Report,
  9. Infusing culture of responsibility into Ethiopian politics, The Reporter,
  10. PM Meles explains his vision for Ethiopia, Forum of Federations,
  11. Metasebia Teshome, Ethiopia decides, The Capital,
  12. Ibid
  13. Ibid. note 9
  14. Spandana Singh, How Social Platforms Are Scrambling to Slow the Spread of Election Falsehoods, New America OTI,
  15. Tewedaj Sintayehu, Delving into the low turnout for registration, The Reporter,
  16. Elias Tegegn, NEBE investigating complaints. The Reporter,

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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