Ethiopia will hold a parliamentary election on June 5, 2021, the National Electoral Board said Friday, after polls scheduled for 2020 were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The canceled elections were a factor that stoked tensions between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the dissident northern Tigray region, which ultimately saw him dispatch federal troops there in a November military offensive that left thousands dead and created tens of thousands of refugees.
The elections in Ethiopia, Africa's second-most populous country with some 110 million people, are largely seen as an important political transition process announced by Abiy, last year's Nobel Peace prize winner.
According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), Abiy, who came to power in 2018, had promised free, fair and democratic elections in 2020. The elections were scheduled for Aug. 29 but the election commission deferred them indefinitely after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
The prime minister's Prosperity Party, a pan-Ethiopian movement he founded a year ago, faces challenges from increasingly strident ethnically based parties seeking more power for their regions. The country has a federal system and 10 regional governments, many of whom have border disputes or face low-level unrest.
In the northern Tigray region, thousands of people are believed to have died and 950,000 have fled their homes since fighting between regional forces and the federal government erupted on Nov. 4. Tigray held its own elections in September in defiance of the federal government, which declared the polls illegal.
The election board said its calendar for next year's polls does not include an election in Tigray. It said it would announce a date for elections there once the interim government established during the conflict can support the opening of election offices there.
For nearly three decades until Abiy's appointment, Ethiopia was ruled by a coalition of four ethnically based movements dominated by the party from Tigray. That administration ruled in an increasingly autocratic fashion until Abiy took power following years of bloody anti-government street protests.
The initial months after Abiy's appointment saw a rush of political and economic reforms, including the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners. Last year, Abiy merged three of the old parties to form the Prosperity Party – only the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) refused to join.
Voter registration will take place from March 1 to March 30, the election board said.
Abiy's peace deal with Ethiopia's archenemy Eritrea helped earn him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 but loosening the government's iron grip was also followed by outbreaks of violence as regional powerbrokers jostled for resources and power.
On Thursday, Abiy said he was sending forces to the western Benishangul-Gumuz region, which borders Sudan, the day after unidentified attackers torched homes and killed more than 100 people in a village there. There is also a long-running insurgency in the Oromiya region, Ethiopia's most populous region, as Reuters reported.
The Oromo Liberation Front, an opposition party from the Oromiya region that was once declared a terrorist movement before it was unbanned by Abiy, said on Dec. 12 that the government was using the prospect of an election to divert attention away from the myriad security problems.
"Even though the ruling party wants to conceal the existing problems and divert attention towards the national election, it is obvious that the country has descended into complex security crises and political catastrophes," it said. "We recommend that repairing the fractured administrative regions and restoring peace and security must be undertaken before the election takes place."
Many Oromo politicians are in jail, such as Jawar Mohammed, a prominent media mogul and member of the Oromo Federalist Congress party.
He and other party leaders were charged in September with terrorism offenses following the killing of the popular Oromo musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa. The death of Haacaaluu sparked protests that killed at least 178 people in Oromiya and the capital.
The chairman of the winning party becomes prime minister.