Ethiopia’s Tigray Region Defies Government Ban on Election

Ethiopia’s Tigray Region Defies Government Ban on Election

Samuel Gebre and Simon Marks

  • Vote is latest challenge to prime minister’s reform agenda
  •  Ethiopia’s parliament has warned it won’t recognise results
A party campaign board in Mekele, in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, on Sept. 6. Photographer: Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

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(bloomberg)–Ethiopia’s Tigray region defied a government ban on a parliamentary vote, ratcheting up tensions with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration.

The ballot is a direct challenge to the federal government, which postponed general elections earlier this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s the latest in a series of challenges Abiy has faced since he began implementing political reforms two years ago.

Tensions between the Tigrayan and federal authorities may spawn unrest that could jeopardize Abiy’s plans to open up the economy to foreign investment, according to the International Crisis Group. Some federal officials have said they’ll stop the vote, while the nation’s upper house of parliament on Saturday said the results won’t be recognized, state-controlled Ethiopian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

Depending on how far the dispute goes, it may push the ethnic Tigray group to consider “constitutional secession procedures, further raising the stakes and intensifying conflict risks,” the ICG said last month.

Lost Influence

Abiy played down the prospect of the election stoking instability.

“This merry-go-round should not be a headache for us,” he said on state television on Tuesday. “We are not going to lift our hands every time someone shouts asking to affirm their existence.”

Tigray’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front was formerly the pre-eminent party in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, after it helped oust the nation’s Marxist Derg regime in 1991. The party has set itself in opposition to Abiy, an ethnic Oromo, since he came to power in April 2018. In December, it refused to join the Prosperity Party formed by Abiy to replace the coalition.

Other regional groups have intensified calls for more self-determination. In November, the southern Sidama region voted to create the nation’s 10th self-governing region.

Wednesday’s election is a display of Tigrayan anger about being sidelined by the political reforms, and is unlikely to result in the region seceding, said Asnake Kefale, an associate professor at Addis Ababa University.

“It’s not like an oppressed minority, which is seeking to get self-determination, an administration of independence,” Asnake said. “It’s just a narrative which is being propelled by some Tigray activists that the TPLF is behind.”

About 3 million people are expected to vote for representatives to Tigray’s 190-member parliament. The results are expected by Sept. 13.