Polls open in Ethiopia’s Sidama region as counting continues

Ethiopians stand in a long queue to vote in the general election at a polling center in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, on June 21, 2021. (BEN CURTIS / AP)

ADDIS ABABA – Voters in Ethiopia's Sidama region went to the polls a day late on Tuesday as officials counted ballots from other regions in an election marred by an opposition boycott, war and reports of irregularities in some areas.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed hopes the national and regional elections will show the success of democratic reforms he launched after being appointed by the ruling coalition in 2018. 

More than 37 million of Ethiopia's 109 million people are registered to vote, choosing from 46 parties and more than 9,000 candidates – a record, according to the electoral board

But the vote also reflects a messy reality in the country of 109 million people. Authorities could not hold polls on Monday in four of Ethiopia's 10 regions including Sidama, where there were logistical problems, according to the election board.

"Democracy is not built in a day. We are laying it brick by brick," Abiy said in a written statement late on Monday.

"No matter who wins, Ethiopians from all over the country have voted for whomever they choose, without any fear and without any kind of pressure. And because of that, Ethiopia is triumphant," said Abiy.

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There was no comment from Abiy on Tuesday morning and his spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment as counting proceeded.

More than 37 million of Ethiopia's 109 million people are registered to vote, choosing from 46 parties and more than 9,000 candidates – a record, according to the electoral board.

A map showing the 10 regions and two chartered cities of Ethiopia. (GRAPHIC / AFP)

Abiy's newly formed national Prosperity Party is widely forecast to defeat the fragmented opposition of dozens of mostly ethnically based parties. The ruling coalition and its allies hold all 547 national parliamentary seats.

Though the prime minister won the Nobel prize in 2019 for making peace with neighbouring Eritrea, his international reputation has been tarnished since conflict erupted in the northern Tigray region in November.

Regional problems

Voting was delayed in different areas for different reasons. In Sidama, voting was postponed after less than half the ballot papers arrived, election board chief Birtukan Midekssa said.

Two other regions, Somali and Harar, previously delayed voting until September due to problems with ballot papers and disputes.

No date has been set for elections in Tigray, which has been a battleground since conflict erupted there in November between Ethiopia's military and the region's former governing party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF)

Tigray has been a battleground since conflict erupted there in November between Ethiopia's military and the region's former governing party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). No date has been set for elections there.

In two regions where voting did happen, opposition observers were reportedly chased away from many polling stations, board chief Birtukan Midekssa told reporters late on Monday. The board was scheduled to hold a news conference at 2 pm (1100 GMT).

Opposition leader Berhanu Nega said his Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party (Ezema) had filed 207 complaints after local officials and militia in both regions blocked party observers, he said.

In Oromiya, Ethiopia's most populous region, major opposition parties boycotted the vote, complaining of government intimidation. Regional officials did not return calls seeking comment.

Voting was also not held in some areas of Benishangul-Gumuz region after ethnic violence prevented voter registration.

But in other areas, including the capital, voting went peacefully. The election board extended voting nationwide by three hours because many polling stations opened late and still had long lines when they were due to close. 

READ MORE: Ethiopia's electoral board sets tentative Aug date for elections

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in the village of Wereb Michael, a rural area 15 km from Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, on June 21, 2021. (EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP)

Increasing pressure

Abiy oversaw sweeping political and economic reforms after his appointment in 2018. He lifted a ban on many political parties and media outlets and released tens of thousands of political prisoners.

But some rights activists say those gains are being reversed. Fisseha Tekle from rights group Amnesty International said the government was still quashing dissent using a revised anti-terrorism law and new hate speech legislation.

"The government is using these laws to arrest people and keep them in prison for a long time," Fisseha said.

Abiy's spokeswoman Billene Seyoum did not immediately respond to a request for comment but previously told Reuters: "There is no perfect environment; however, it cannot be said that a nascent democracy like Ethiopia is regressing."

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed oversaw sweeping political and economic reforms after his appointment in 2018. He lifted a ban on many political parties and media outlets and released tens of thousands of political prisoners

Abiy is also coming under increasing international pressure over reports of abuses in the war in Tigray. The UN says 350,000 people there face famine – something Abiy denies.

"There is no hunger in Tigray," he told a journalist for the British Broadcasting Corporation after voting.

Abiy has said the government will hold anyone committing abuses in Tigray to account. The results of a joint investigation by the United Nations and the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission into rights violations by "all parties to the conflict" in Tigray are expected in August, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Monday. read more

Ethnic violence in other regions too has killed thousands since Abiy took power.

READ MORE: Ethiopia's Abiy denies guerrilla war emerging in Tigray

"I will vote for a party that I think will bring peace," marketing director Yetayew Solomon, 30, told Reuters as he waited to vote in the capital.

Voters are also concerned about the economy.

Abiy has promised to bring in foreign investment and speed up electrification by filling a giant US$4 billion hydropower dam on the Blue Nile, stoking tension with Egypt and Sudan, which fear the Nile water supplies they rely on might be interrupted.

But annual inflation is about 20 percent and growth is forecast at just 2 percent this year after topping 10 percent before the COVID-19 pandemic and Tigray conflict.

"The cost of living is increasing," said shopkeeper Murad Merga, whose window was crowded with ruling party posters. But he remained upbeat: "Everything will be fixed step by step."