The last time Berhanu Nega went to office, in 2005, he did so well that he ended up in prison. The then-ruling Democratic Democratic Front of the Ethiopian people, shocked by a strong opposition showing up, declared a state of emergency, fabricated the results and threw Berhanu, who had been elected mayor of Addis Ababa, into prison.
Now 62 years old, Berhanu is the first opposition candidate in Monday’s parliamentary elections, billed as the first “free and fair” vote in Ethiopia.
The vote will be the first electoral test of Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner, from stepping down to power alongside the protests in 2018 that promise reform.
Although some opposition politicians say the process is deeply flawed, Abiy hopes to salvage a severely damaged reputation from the recent civil war, Brewing famine and atrocities in the northern Tigray region.
“What is at stake is the very existence of this country,” said Berhanu, an economics professor once designated a terrorist and sentenced to death. in absentia during years in exile, referring to the ethnic violence that has erupted not only in Tigray but across the country since Abiy took office.
This violence, among many of the 80 ethnic groups in Ethiopia, has displaced 2 million people, not including in Tigray, and threatens to snatch a former nation of 114 million people whose ethnic divisions are often compared to the former Yugoslavia.
Berhanu, who shares with Abiy a vision of Ethiopia as a more unified state, argues that the election could act as a resettlement, calming the tensions he attributes in part to the election itself. “I care less about who wins and much more about the process,” he said. “If we can make a credible election, I think this could be a new beginning for this country.”
This opinion is not shared by other opposition parties, who consider that the poll is deeply compromised and that the newly formed Abiy Prosperity party cannot lose.
Very prominent future challengers they are in prison and many parties are boycotting an exercise that will not take place in certain parts of the country, including Tigray, because they are considered too unstable. Of 547 parliamentary seats, at least 102, mainly from three regions – Tigray, Somali and Harari – will not be contested, according to Chatham House, a think-tank.
“It will be the same elections as in the days of Joseph Stalin, when he told the people of Russia to ‘vote, we count,'” said Merera Gudina, president of the Oromo Federalist Congress, which boycotted the vote. Abiy’s party must sweep Oromia, the largest region with 35 million people, despite the fact that the prime minister, an Oromo himself, is considered by many to have sold the interests of his region to a vision of a more centralized state.
Opposition parties, including Berhan’s Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party, say the protests have been ripped apart and supporters have been ruined, although Berhanu said he did not expect any direct action. , as the ballot box. The diversity of the last elections in 2015, where the EPRDF “won” 100 percent of the parliamentary seats, predicted that opposition parties would have significant representation.
Yet the elections are scrappy, “full of illegal restrictions, intimidation, arrests, violence of all kinds,” according to Belete Molla, chairman of the Amhara National Movement party, a nationalist ethnic group. “The Prosperity party has massively spent government money on the party’s campaign, forcing people to use government aid programs,” Belete said, referring to the alleged withdrawal of subsidized goods such as fertilizers. for those who are not registered to vote.
About 37 million people have registered after a slow start that required a second minor recall following a controversial decision not to hold elections in 2020 because of Covid-19.
Daniel Bekele, head of the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, said that despite the difficulties, the elections were more open than those held under 27 years of EPRDF rule. “It is a credible reasonable electoral process that is a step towards a better election in the future,” he said. “But the general political environment creates a challenge for completely free and fair elections.”
A few days before Monday’s poll, Abiy is back in his hometown in the town of Jimma in Oromia for a rally aimed at demonstrating his enduring popularity. Here, it was difficult to find anyone who would not support him or who would not support the war against a Tigray People’s Liberation Front accused of decades of repression when he led the EPRDF coalition. Abiy supporters have claimed he had no option to invade Tigray after troops loyal to the TPLF attacked the northern command of the federal army in November.
“The problem is the TPLF government, which was very bad,” said Nuritu Siraj, a 39-year-old housewife whose eyes blinked every time she mentioned “our Abiy”. Dressed in a hijab emblazoned with the Prosperity Party’s lightning emblem, she said of the violence in Tigray, where massacres, rapes and looting were common: “It’s not a war, it’s a maintenance operation. of peace “.
As tens of thousands of supporters gathered, some of them on horseback, Abiy blurred his vision of unity, still unpopular in parts of the country where ethnic groups such as Somalis, Afars and his own Oromo people jealously guard the so autonomy. “Our unity does not destroy our diversity, our diversity does not disperse our unity,” he said.
Even the prime minister seems to be bolstering his expectations on the upcoming election. “This will be the nation’s first attempt at free and fair elections,” he said in a less definitive approval.
However, quietly, this test goes, many of Ethiopia’s turbulent problems – the most urgent of all the raging war in Tigray – remain intractable. “This is a critical moment; we’re at a critical crossroads, ”Merera said.