ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA – Long before sunrise on June 21, 2021, Ethiopians in the capital queued to vote in the country’s first election in six years. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said it would be the country’s “first attempt at a free and fair election.”
“I came early to vote for whom I believe will bring us a bright future,” said Tenaye Melkamu, wearing a pink knit hat and thick scarf.
Now, officials are tallying the ballots in the prime minister’s first electoral contest after more than three years in office. And as the country awaits results, the northern Tigray region is once again plagued by violence as it approaches eight months of war.
“No one is moving now,” one young man told VOA from his home in Tigray, after describing a day and a half of chaos and fear. He cannot be named for security reasons. Three different militaries have controlled his town in the past two days, where several houses have been destroyed and three people have been killed, he said.
In another part of Tigray, witnesses reported a bomb dropped by a plane killed dozens of people and wounded dozens more, according to Reuters news. The road to the regional capital, Mekelle, is also closed, preventing wounded patients from reaching the main hospital.
In the capital, Addis Ababa, the roads were calm and people seemed somewhat relieved on Wednesday. Voting had been tense with many people waiting long hours because of missing ballots and election workers.
By Monday night, after the polls were supposed to close, millions of would-be voters were still waiting to cast their ballots across several regions.
“I’m exhausted,” said Eden Hagos, a voter in central Addis Ababa, after waiting for about 10 hours on Monday evening. “Maybe I will go without voting. I have two children who have been at home all day.”
But by Tuesday evening, officials said almost all of Ethiopia’s polling stations that had opened had finished accepting ballots. Preliminary results are expected within the coming days.
About a fifth of country’s 547 parliamentary constituencies, however, were not voting.
The ballot was postponed in some areas for security reasons. In the Oromia region, two major opposition parties boycotted the election; in Tigray, there is no plan to reschedule the poll.
“We already voted for our leaders,” said Belay Abera, a 67-year-old farmer who fled his home in Tigray at the beginning of the war. He was referring to local elections in 2020 when Tigrayans voted in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Tensions quickly escalated in the region as the government declared the Tigray election illegal, and soon war broke out. The government has since designated the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics for almost two decades until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was appointed in 2018, as a terrorist organization.
Postponed elections are expected to take place in September, but analysts say the war needs to be resolved before an election can be held in Tigray.
“Of course, the people have the right to be represented, said Kiya Tsegaye, a lawyer and political analyst. “At the end of the day these people are part of Ethiopia and they have to see their representatives in the Ethiopian federal parliament.”
However, he says, the 38 unfilled seats for Tigray are not enough to skew the electoral math, and he believes a government will be formed after results are announced.
The conflict in Tigray has displaced about two million people and forced tens of thousands to flee the country. The African Union is investigating allegations of mass murders and rapes. Aid organizations say parts of the region are suffering from famine and millions of people are in danger of starvation.
“The situation is set to get worse in the coming months, not only in Tigray, but in Afar and Amhara, as well,” said United Nations aid chief Mark Lowcock, after informing colleagues that famine was already under way in Tigray.
Future of government
On Monday, Abiy spoke to reporters at the polls, saying, “You can see how it is a free and fair election … I hope it will be the best election in our history.”
“There is no hunger in Tigray,” he said, adding: “There’s a problem in Tigray and the government is capable of fixing that.”
Abiy is widely expected to retain his seat after results are announced, and many voters say they have high hopes for his coming years as in office. All voters interviewed — regardless of who they supported — said the country needs peace and financial stability.
“The problems we have are economical, which is inflation — two-digit inflation,” explained Dr. Tawfik Abdullahi, a former ambassador and current parliamentary candidate with the ruling Prosperity Party. “We have unemployed youth. We should strive to systematically and continuously create job opportunities. So, for this we need peace and tranquility.”