Asked by Al Jazeera’s anchor Riz Khan back in May 2008 when Eritrea would have elections, President Isaias Afwerki quipped “what elections?” With his answer, he clearly declared before the international community his intention to rule the country for life without accountability.
Thirteen years later, Afwerki’s ally across the border in Ethiopia seems to be making a similar declaration. By pushing for an election amid deadly civil war and by crushing opposition parties ahead of the vote, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed further undermined an already broken electoral process. Clearly, he, like Afwerki, is intent on staying in power at any cost for as long as he can.
On June 21, amid country-wide insecurity and boycott by opposition parties, the country went to the polls. A week later, the government announced a unilateral ceasefire in Tigray and pulled out its forces. On July 10, as people wondered why the Ethiopian army suffered a humiliating military defeat at the hands of the Tigrayan Defence Forces, Abiy declared election victory.
The prime minister is clearly trying to lay the groundwork for personalised power similar to the model Afwerki has built. He is not only weakening the electoral institution but also actively dismantling the current multinational federalism set in the country’s constitution.
A sham election
After delaying the parliamentary election – initially scheduled for August 2020 – citing the pandemic and thus illegally extending his term, Abiy decided to go forward with it at a time when not only was the epidemic situation no better, but also the country was going through a civil conflict in one region and deadly instability in several others.
In Tigray region as well as constituencies in Oromia, Amhara, Harari, Somali and Afar, violence has been raging for months. And despite the tragic plight of millions of Ethiopians in these areas and accusations of genocide and mass atrocities, the government did not delay the election in order to negotiate with warring parties and engage in dialogue with the opposition, hold war criminals to account, help internally displaced people return to their homes, and ensure that every adult Ethiopian can exercise their democratic right to vote.
As a result, of the 547 constituencies, 102 in Tigray, Somali, Harari, Afar, and Benishangul-Gumuz regions, representing about 18 percent of parliamentary seats, did not vote.
Outside of these constituencies, there were also major problems with how the vote took place. Many opposition parties were unable to launch proper election campaigns, as their leaders were arrested, jailed and even assassinated over the past year. Their members and candidates were harassed and their offices raided, which led some parties to completely boycott the elections. Among them were the Oromo Liberation Front and the Oromo Federalist Congress, which enjoy widespread support within the Oromo community, Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group that Abiy is also a member of.
Those who decided to contest the elections also faced problems. In Amhara region and in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region, election observers were beaten and chased away from polling stations. The National Movement of Amhara, Afar People’s Party, Balderas for Genuine Democracy and Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice accused the ruling party of interfering with the vote, having election officials on their side and adopting voter intimidation tactics.
“The election was not free, fair and democratic,” stated Balderas for Genuine Democracy.
With the opposition largely eliminated through pressure campaigns, dissenting voices silenced, and the media censored, a sweeping victory for Abiy’s Prosperity Party was expected. Gaining 410 out of 436 seats, the prime minister is finding it hard to convince Ethiopians and the international community that he did so in a fair election.
The European Union, which decided not to send observers for the vote, stopped short of condemning it, but the United States was upfront: “The detention of opposition politicians, harassment of independent media, partisan activities by local and regional governments, and the many inter-ethnic and inter-communal conflicts across Ethiopia are obstacles to a free and fair electoral process and whether Ethiopians would perceive them as credible.”
The centralisation of power
The sham election and the ongoing conflicts in Ethiopia are all related to Abiy’s attempt to establish a durable authoritarian regime that centralises power and destroys the current Ethiopian federalism.
One of the first moves Abiy made in this direction was to merge the parties within the coalition Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – which formerly ruled the country and maintained at least a de jure federal system – into one party, his Prosperity Party.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), one of the core parties in the EPRDF which has ruled Tigray for decades, decided not to join the new formation. When Abiy announced the postponement of the elections in 2020, Tigray rejected it, seeing it as an illegal extension of the prime minister’s term and as a threat to people’s right to self-determination. On September 4, Tigray conducted a regional election, which Abiy declared illegal. Shortly after, Addis Ababa cut ties with the Tigray government and slashed its budget, eventually declaring war and deploying troops to the region.
Abiy is clearly intent on crushing any opposition to his efforts to concentrate power. It is quite ironic that when he came to power in 2018, there was society-wide hope that he would finally guarantee the rights of various communities which had faced repression for so long. But that was short-lived. It soon became clear that he wants centralised absolute power, and federalism – which decentralises power to the various regions of the country – stands in the way.
The demand for federalism, which Abiy is trying to suppress, has to be understood within the context of Ethiopia’s past history of domination by one ethnic group, forced assimilation and the denial of cultural rights and identity of various communities. The 1995 constitution tried to address this by establishing a multinational federal system that grants cultural communities the right to self-determination all the way up to secession. Though plainly stipulated in the constitution, Ethiopian federalism was never effectively practised.
The ever-increasing demand for self-determination and self-rule is an outcome of the short supply of democratic constitutional governance that guarantees the rights of all ethnic and religious communities in Ethiopia.
A war of visions
Abiy and his ruling party, albeit promoting a mild level of decentralisation, aim to abolish the current federalist arrangement. Feeding on extreme nationalism and quasi-imperial ambitions, they are hellbent on securing and monopolising power by any means.
When possible, they employ constitutional norms and when necessary, unconstitutional, brutal, oppressive means, including a genocidal war on those who resist. This is a vision that is inherently undemocratic, antagonistic to multiculturalism, and even fascistic and that threatens the integrity of the state.
On the other side is a vision of federalism, of decentralised power, more autonomy, confederal arrangements, self-determination and even, where necessary, independence from the central authority. Some members of the ruling party may support maintaining the current constitution, but they exercise little influence in setting Abiy’s vision for the country.
The June 21 election was designed not to give Ethiopians a genuine chance to express their will through the ballot, but to legitimise this vision of centralised power in a unitary state. The opposition parties that did participate gave the vote a veneer of legitimacy and the impression that a centralised government and one Ethiopian identity is what all Ethiopian ethnic communities want.
Those who support this election are assisting an unconstitutional power grab, the continuation of war and the denial of war crimes. The vote did not bring the country any closer to peace; on the contrary, it is only deepening tensions and moving Addis Ababa away from ending the civil war and economic turmoil. Centralised power in Ethiopia will not bring peace and stability; it will only deepen rifts and spur further conflict with dangerous ramifications for regional and international security.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.