Elections in Africa in 2021 – Africa Center for Strategic Studies
Parliamentary elections, June 5
Perhaps Africa’s most significant election in 2021 will be when Ethiopians go to the polls in June. Parliament has delayed the elections, originally scheduled for August 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision by the Tigrayan leaders to hold provincial elections in September sparked a confrontation with the federal government that escalated into a full-blown armed conflict in November. The unresolved implications of the fighting in Tigray cast a shadow over and underscore the fragility of Ethiopia’s nascent electoral process.
The vote in Ethiopia would be the country’s first truly competitive multi-party elections – a historic moment for the country of 100 million people. This democratic openness was created by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who, after taking over as prime minister in April 2018, opened up Ethiopia’s once tightly controlled political system. Elections therefore present an opportunity for participation and popular representation that Ethiopians have long been denied during decades of successive authoritarian governments.
“A strategic subtext to the Ethiopian election is to find an appropriate balance of power sharing between the regions and the federal government.”
This legacy of authoritarianism and the lack of democratic precedents add greatly to the complexity of these elections. Building democracy is more than a one-off event, but will require building a democratic culture, a multi-year effort. Realizing this, Ethiopia’s 2021 electoral process faces multiple treacherous challenges simultaneously, each of which would constitute a major obstacle in and of itself.
The key among these is to ensure the integrity of the process. Given the years of authoritarian rule, coupled with uncertainty and fears of exclusion, the Ethiopian election begins with a high level of mistrust. Birtukan Mideksa, a former opposition leader in exile, heads the National Electoral Council of Ethiopia (NEBE), offering a welcome sign of reassurance to suspicious opposition parties. More than in other contexts, it will be essential for the NEBE to keep all parties well informed, apply the rules impartially, welcome independent election observers and maintain a transparent vote counting process.
Maintaining the free flow of information is also essential for the integrity of the process. Ethiopia has a reputation for regularly shutting down the internet, especially during politically sensitive times. Likewise, the government instituted a strict media ban during the Tigray conflict, creating an information chasm and fueling a myriad of rumors about what was going on. Without integrity, the electoral process will lose the benefit of legitimacy it is supposed to produce and, on the contrary, could be a destabilizing event.
Another strategic subtext of the Ethiopian election is to find an appropriate balance of power sharing between the regions and the federal government. A federal governance structure is well suited to Ethiopia’s large and diverse population to tailor policies to local circumstances and facilitate greater government responsiveness to citizens’ priorities. However, in the absence of a clear division of responsibilities, federal models can amplify centrifugal pressures on the state, as regional leaders have a strong incentive to prioritize parochial interests over national interests. In addition, the Abiy government inherited an ethnic federal model that reinforces political, geographic and ethnic differences. It’s a recipe for polarization and instability. Ethiopia has suffered from the growth of ethnic militias and a spike in ethnic violence in recent years, resulting in the displacement of around 1.5 million people. Encouraging power-sharing with local governments, while strengthening ties with the center and strengthening values of national identity and unity are therefore all part of the balance Ethiopia must seek to achieve. Otherwise, Ethiopia’s viability as a unified state is at stake – a risk painfully illustrated by the violence in Tigray.
“Building democracy is more than a one-off event, but will require the creation of a democratic culture, a multi-year effort.”
Another easily overlooked challenge with the transition to democracy is the steep learning curve that candidates and rival parties face to compete in a civilian setting. Democratic elections are intended to be a forum for the competition of visions and ideas. This requires restraint and avoiding actions or rhetoric that can incite supporters to violence. Moreover, democratic elections are not existential battles. The power of the winners is limited by institutional checks and balances. Losers, likewise, live to fight another day, retaining the right to continue to assert their views, attract supporters and hold government accountable. Strengthening these themes will be a priority for civic education efforts, both before and after the elections.
This electoral cycle also faces the uncertainty of a highly fragmented party system. There are over 100 political parties competing in the Ethiopian parliamentary system, many of them for the first time. Even Abiy’s ruling prosperity party has never participated in a national election before. This portends an unpredictable outcome that may involve negotiating some form of government coalition, underscoring the value of maintaining civic and cooperative relations between the parties. Given the novelty and uncertainty, the electoral environment in Ethiopia is expected to remain fluid until and after the elections. While these historic polls offer unprecedented opportunities to broaden the scope of citizen participation, unless they are managed in a transparent and accountable manner, this unpredictability poses another point of instability for Ethiopia.
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