Plans to hold elections in Tigray next Ethiopian year signal progress in consolidating stability despite obstacles to transforming the region’s politics.
The National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) plans to hold elections in Tigray region pursuant to last November’s peace deal that ended large-scale fighting between the federal government and Tigray forces.
NEBE Deputy Wubishet Ayale made the announcement on 10 May when he provided an update to a parliamentary committee on the board’s work in recent months, mentioning issues that have caused election delays in some areas.
According to Wubishet, NEBE is planning to hold a remedial election in areas where the 2021 general election was not conducted due to several reasons, including in Tigray due to the war. The vote is expected to take place next Ethiopian year, meaning between 11 September 2023 and 10 September 2024.
NEBE’s decision to hold elections comes months after the establishment of the Tigray Interim Regional Administration (IRA) and appointment of Getachew Reda as the region’s president on 23 March.
A successful poll would mark another step away from the constitutional dispute that led to war in Tigray and towards implementation of the Pretoria Agreement, as it would mark a return to a fully constitutional regional government.
NEBE is likely to face logistical challenges, financial constraints, and security concerns due to lingering effects from the conflict.
Ensuring voter registration, distributing electoral materials, training electoral staff, and establishing polling stations may prove difficult in a region affected by widespread displacement, infrastructure damage, and insecurity.
Additionally, NEBE will have to deal with the issue of disputed areas in Western Tigray that are under the control of Amhara and Eritrean forces.
The fact that the IRA was established only two months ago exacerbates the administrative challenges.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front-led IRA may face significant hurdles in establishing its structures in all areas of Tigray due to the two-year war that weakened the local administrative setup and because it no longer controls parts of its territory.
Given the limited time for preparation and the weakened institutional capacity as a result of the war, other opposition parties from Tigray may encounter difficulties in ensuring their voices are heard.
Moreover, these parties could face opposition from the IRA, which is controlled by TPLF. It is unclear whether federal and regional authorities will allow free and fair elections to be held.
At the same time, Tigray’s population, still recovering from the war’s devastating effects and dealing with the conflict’s trauma, is more internally divided than ever and may have other priorities than a competitive democratic process.
In addition to reestablishing trust in political actors, for the voters, fully engaging in this process requires healing and reconciliation measures that have not yet been implemented.
Notably, transitional justice has not been addressed, leaving parts of the populace and opposition parties dubious about whether elections can help address the region’s political quagmire in the absence of accountability.
Tigray has been severely impacted by human rights violations and abuses that occurred during the two-year war. TPLF leaders, though, may use accountability as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Addis Ababa.
Holding new elections in Tigray was a central aspect of the peace agreement reached in November, as a constitutional dispute over Tigray’s last election was the immediate spark of the civil war that engulfed the region for over two years.
Tensions increased in late 2019 between the sparring federal government and TPLF when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attempted to merge the four constituent parties of the ruling EPRDF coalition (and five allied regional parties) into his own Prosperity Party.
The EPRDF’s founding member, the TPLF, resisted the merger and the feud escalated in mid-2020 when Tigray made plans to hold a regional council election, which the federal government declared illegal based on its decision to postpone all elections amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the federal government’s rejection, Tigray’s government went ahead with the poll in September 2020, saying it was a constitutional necessity, and TPLF secured an overwhelming majority. After the two governments subsequently deemed each other illegal, the path to conflict was set.
The federal government said the war started when TPLF-commanded forces attacked federal military bases on 3 November 2020 while Tigray’s leaders said they faced imminent federal military intervention to remove them and so launched a preemptive strike.
The conflict, which was also fought in Afar and Amhara regions, lasted until 3 November 2022 and killed an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 people. It involved several parties warring against the TPLF, including the federal military, Eritrean troops, Amhara forces, and those from other regions. During the war, Tigray’s opponents largely blocked trade, aid, and services to the region’s approximately six-million people.
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Main Image: Tigray woman voting during the Tigray regional election; September 2020.