Ben Curtis/AP
Ethiopians rest in chairs on the street as they wait to cast their votes in the general election at a polling center in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on June 21, 2021. Over 37 millions Ethiopians were expected to vote in Monday's election.

Amid ethnic conflict, Ethiopians vote. Free and fair elections?

As conflict rages in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has been accused of overseeing famine and ethnic violence, now faces the country’s first multi-party election since 2005.

Ethiopia was voting Monday in the greatest electoral test yet for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as war and logistical issues meant ballots wouldn’t be cast in more than 100 of the 547 constituencies across the country.

The election, delayed from last year, is the centerpiece of a reform drive by Mr. Abiy, whose rise to power in 2018 seemed to signal a break with decades of authoritarian rule and led to him winning a Nobel Peace Prize the following year. He has described the poll as “the nation’s first attempt at free and fair elections.”

Long lines of voters were seen in some parts of the capital, Addis Ababa, while security was stepped up across Africa’s second-most populous country. Military vehicles were parked in key locations in the capital. More than 37 million Ethiopians were expected to vote.

“We need a government that brings us peace, unity, and that will stop the killing everywhere, and we also need to be pulled out from these ethnic divisions,” voter Desalgn Shume said.

Mr. Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party, formed in 2019 by merging groups that made up the previous ruling coalition, is widely expected to cement its hold on power. The party that wins a majority of seats in the House of Peoples’ Representatives will form the next government. Final election results are expected within 10 days.

Mr. Abiy’s party registered 2,432 candidates in the election. The next largest party, Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, was fielding 1,385 candidates. A total of 47 parties were seeking seats.

The spirit of this election “is much better in many ways than the previous elections,” Mr. Abiy said Monday, adding that the country is “witnessing the atmosphere of democracy.”

But opposition groups have accused Ethiopia’s ruling party of harassment, manipulation, and threats of violence that echo abuses of the past. Some prominent opposition parties are boycotting the election, notably in the country’s most populous region, Oromia. Others say they were prevented from campaigning in several parts of the country.

“My expectation is that [the election] would hopefully, with minor difficulties, be completed in a credible way,” opposition candidate Berhanu Nega with the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party said while voting.

Getnet Worku, secretary general of the opposition ENAT party, accused Prosperity Party members of campaigning inside polling booths and said five of his party’s agents were detained for several hours, calling it “a matter of intimidation.”

Ethiopia’s election chief, Birtukan Midekssa, told reporters that some election-related problems had been witnessed in the Amhara, Afar, and Southern regions with some observers having difficulty in moving around and doing their job, which she called “concerning.” Some opposition candidates also are having trouble moving around, and “this may cause a problem in the election process and its result, so it has to stop immediately.”

Ms. Birtukan earlier had acknowledged “serious challenges” but noted that more parties and candidates are contesting than ever before. “I call on the international community to support Ethiopia on its democratic journey, stressful and imperfect though it is,” she wrote in the United States-based magazine The National Interest.

Mr. Abiy also is facing growing international criticism over the war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, sparked in part because Tigray’s now-fugitive leaders objected to Ethiopia postponing the election last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. No date has been set for voting in Tigray’s 38 constituencies.

Tigray’s former leaders, who are fighting Ethiopian forces and those from neighboring Eritrea, have reported fierce new combat in recent days. Ethiopia’s defense forces have called the fighting challenging because of the rough terrain. Thousands of civilians have been killed and famine has begun in what observers describe as a drawn-out guerrilla war.

Meanwhile, outbreaks of ethnic violence have killed hundreds of people in the Amhara, Oromia, and Benishangul-Gumuz regions in recent months.

One resident of the capital, who gave only his first name, Samuel, said he wouldn’t be voting. “Two or three years ago, I would have voted for Mr. Abiy, but now there are a lot of troubles in our country,” he said.

International concern has been growing about the election. The U.S. has said it is “gravely concerned about the environment under which these upcoming elections are to be held,” and the European Union said it will not observe the vote after its requests to import communications equipment were denied.

In response, Ethiopia said external observers “are neither essential nor necessary to certify the credibility of an election,” although it has since welcomed observers deployed by the African Union.

The United Nations secretary-general has noted the “challenging” environment and warned against acts of violence.

“It is our duty to remain united and not the government’s,” one resident of the capital, Eskedar Teklegiorges, said over the weekend as hundreds of police officers paraded in a show of force ahead of the vote.

Another voter noted the wide range of candidates running.

“Last time we didn’t have a choice, but this is totally different,” Girmachew Asfaw said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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