Ballot papers are still being counted following delayed parliamentary elections in Ethiopia, the first electoral test for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Africa’s second-most populous country went to the polls on Monday but an opposition boycott, a months-long war in the northern region of Tigray, ethnic violence elsewhere and logistical challenges overshadowed the vote in some regions.
Abiy’s newly formed Prosperity Party (PP) is seen as the frontrunner in a crowded field of candidates, mostly from smaller, ethnically-based parties.
The vote was seen as a crucial test for the prime minister, whose rise to power in 2018 initially seemed to signal a break with decades of authoritarian rule, but who has since waged war in the Tigray region and whose party has been accused of election abuses.
More than 37 million of Ethiopia’s 110-plus million people were registered to vote, choosing from 46 parties and more than 9,000 candidates – a record, according to the electoral board. But some prominent opposition parties, notably in the country’s most populous region, Oromia, boycotted the election citing intimidation and imprisonment of some of their leaders and supporters.
“Abiy is desperate to get a popular mandate because this country is riddled with so many problems – from the conflict in Tigray to ethnic troubles in several hotspots,” Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Adow, reporting from the capital, Addis Ababa, said on Tuesday.
“Many of his supporters and people in his party believe that with a popular mandate he will have the legitimacy he needs to deal decisively with Ethiopia’s problems,” he added.
Some polling stations have started posting results. Preliminary results are expected within five days, and final ones within two weeks.
“In most polling stations across the country, Abiy’s Prosperity Party is leading,” Adow said. “But the opposition is making headways in areas like the capital and towns in other parts of the country and they seem happy with that,” he added.
“There have been problems with the process and opposition parties in rural areas have filed hundreds of complaints including some about tampering with electoral material. The electoral commission says it is investigating those allegations.”
Election board chief Birtukan Midekssa said authorities were unable to hold elections in four of Ethiopia’s 10 regions. In two of the regions that did vote, opposition observers were reportedly chased away from many polling stations, she said.
“This will jeopardise the credibility of the election process,” Midekssa warned.
Voting was delayed in different areas for different reasons.
Voters in Ethiopia’s Sidama state had a second chance to cast ballots on Tuesday after officials there ran out of voting papers the day earlier. The second day of voting in Sidama started at 11am (08:00 GMT).
Voting was also not held in some parts of the Benishangul-Gumuz region after ethnic violence prevented voter registration.
In more than 100 of the country’s 547 constituencies, polls were not even open on Monday – either because of the ongoing war in Tigray or logistical issues elsewhere.
No date has been set for voting in Tigray’s 38 constituencies, while polling in the other regions that did not participate on Monday is expected to take place in September. The next government is unlikely to be formed until that happens.
Berhanu Nega, head of one of the leading opposition parties the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, said in a video statement released by the party after casting his ballot that observers from his party had been “kicked out” of many places.
“In the Amhara region and in the south, there is an additional serious problem that we have observed which is that in a number of places they have kicked out our observers or they wouldn’t allow them from the start in the morning,” said Nega.
“We have compiled this and informed the election board about this. We have also informed the authorities hoping that there will be some solution to this before one can conclude in any form or shape that this is a reflection of the whole process,” he added.
International concern has been growing about the vote, and opposition groups have accused Ethiopia’s governing party of harassment, manipulation and threats of violence that echo abuses of the past.
Abiy is also facing growing international criticism over the war in Tigray, sparked in part because the region’s now-fugitive leaders objected to Ethiopia postponing the election last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
William Davison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group specialising on Ethiopia, said it was “reasonable to hold out some hope” that Abiy would “change course” and reach out to political opponents who either boycotted the polls or are engaged in armed campaigns against the government – but there were also clear reasons “why perhaps that will not happen”.
“There does seem to have been something of a systematic exclusion of some opponents from the democratic process, and with the government having gained a majority we might expect to see a continuation of that,” he told Al Jazeera.
With regards to Tigray, Davison noted that Abiy’s government had recently classified the northern region’s removed ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a “terrorist” organisation.
“So it would be quite a significant backward step for the federal government to start opening negotiations with the TPLF,” he said. “If there is going to be a change of heart there, there is a lot of work to do.”
Davison said Ethiopia is experiencing a difficult period, with chronically difficult socioeconomic conditions being compounded by the coronavirus downturn, a debt crisis, the civil war in Tigray and growing armed campaigns elsewhere in the country, as well as regional tensions over its massive dam on the Blue Nile.
“There is a huge amount of work to do,” Davison said.
“Unless there is some programme of political reconciliation here, reaching out to those who’ve been excluded from the political process and indeed even those who are engaged in armed insurgency, then it’s going to be very hard for the prime minister – even with a solid majority – to sort of establish the stability needed to embark upon political and economic reforms.”