Ethiopia’s poll body has said twice-delayed national elections will now be held on June 21, kicking off a fresh countdown to a key test of democratic reforms under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Africa’s second most populous country was first due to hold the polls last August, but officials pushed them to June 5 of this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Then last weekend electoral board chairwoman Birtukan Mideksa announced a new delay was needed because of logistical woes related to tasks like training electoral staff and printing and distributing ballot papers.
The new date of June 21 was revealed on Thursday at a press conference by electoral board spokeswoman Solyana Shimeles, following meetings with Abiy’s government, opposition parties and regional officials.
Solyana said she did not expect any further delays, citing the upcoming rainy season which begins in June and can wreak havoc with infrastructure.
“We’re trying to [hold] it before the rainy season,” she said.
The logistical challenges promise to be daunting even with the delay, and Solyana estimated on Thursday the board would need to hire more than 100,000 additional staff and train them on voting day procedures and tabulating results.
Staff shortages have been especially apparent so far in Afar and Somali regions, where registration started late, she said.
Abiy came to power in 2018 on the back of several years of anti-government protests and promised to break from Ethiopia’s authoritarian past in part by holding the most democratic elections the country had ever seen.
His reform agenda earned him the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, but his tenure has been marred by security challenges, most prominently the six-month-old war in the northern Tigray region, which will not participate in the June 21 polls.
About 36 million Ethiopians had registered to vote as of last weekend, though no registration had occurred in several constituencies rocked by ethnic violence, including in the country’s most populous regions, Oromia and Amhara.
Solyana said it would be “very difficult” to include these conflict-hit constituencies on June 21.
But she said she expected voters in those areas to be able to cast ballots before a new parliamentary session begins in early October.
The elections will choose national and regional parliamentarians. The national MPs elect the prime minister, who is head of government, as well as the president – a largely ceremonial role.
The ruling coalition that preceded Abiy claimed staggering majorities in the two previous elections, which observers said fell far short of international standards for fairness.
A more open contest in 2005 saw big gains for the opposition but led to a lethal crackdown on protests over contested results.
This year some opposition parties, notably in Abiy’s native Oromia region, have opted to boycott, complaining that their candidates have been arrested and their offices vandalised.