© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attends his final campaign event ahead of Ethiopia's parliamentary and regional elections scheduled for June 21 in Jimma, Ethiopia, on June 16, 2021. REUTERS / Tiksa Negeri / File Photo
By Giulia Paravicini and Dawit Endeshaw
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopia is preparing for national and regional parliamentary elections on Monday, which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said will be the country's first free and fair elections after decades of repressive rule.
However, in 110 out of 547 constituencies, elections were delayed due to violent conflict and logistical problems, and some opposition parties are boycotting the elections because they describe their members as harassment. One candidate denies the election from prison.
Abiy received international praise and a Nobel Peace Prize for democratic reforms and ending two decades of hostilities with neighboring Eritrea when he was named head of the Ethiopian coalition government in 2018. Within months of taking office, he overturned opposition parties, released tens of thousands of political prisoners and took steps to open up one of the last untapped markets in Africa.
He is now facing increasing international pressure over a war in the northern Tigray region and allegations from human rights groups that his government is taking back some new freedoms, which it denies. Abiy's spokeswoman Billene Seyoum declined to comment.
Monday's election will be the first test of voter support for Abiy's government. Abiy said on Twitter this week that the polls would be "the nation's first attempt at free and fair elections."
Earlier elections were weighed down by allegations of election fraud. In 2015, the ruling coalition and its allies won all parliamentary seats.
About 37 million of Ethiopia's 109 million have registered to vote, but some will have to wait until a second ballot in September.
In Tigray, where Ethiopia's military has been fighting the region's former ruling party, the Tigray People & # 39; s Liberation Front (TPLF), since November, no date has been set for the vote.
Abiys Prosperity Party remains the front runner in a field of 46 parties vying for seats in parliament. The opposition is split between smaller, mostly ethnic parties.
Merera Gudina, an ethnic Oromo and chair of the Oromo Federalist Congress, initially supported Abiy's reform agenda. However, he said his party would boycott the elections after regional security forces closed 203 of their offices in the Oromiya region last year, leaving only three of them open.
Merera, a former political prisoner, said thousands are being held.
"Our hope for free, fair and credible elections (will) be dashed."
Gizachew Gebisa, deputy spokesman for the Oromiya regional administration, referred questions to Regional Police Commissioner Ararsa Merdasa, who did not answer.
The leader of another party, Balderas for Real Democracy, is jailed on terrorism charges, which he denies. In May, judges ruled that Eskinder Nega, an ethnic Amhara, could run for parliament in prison.
Others are more optimistic about next week's vote.
“Nobody expects this to be 100% perfect. But we believe that this country needs a fresh start, ”said Birhanu Nega, whose Ethiopian Citizen for Social Justice (Ezema) tries to break through ethnic power blocs, although she is struggling to gain support outside of urban centers.
Abiy founded the Prosperity Party in 2019 by uniting three of the four ethnically based parties of the governing coalition together with smaller regional parties into a national party.
The TPLF, which dominated the ruling coalition for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power, refused to join. It accused him of centralizing power at the expense of the ethnic regions of Ethiopia, which he denies.
The elections were originally scheduled for August 2020, but Abiy has postponed them citing the COVID-19 pandemic. The TPLF held elections in Tigray anyway and put them on a collision course with the government.
The fighting in Tigray has killed thousands and displaced more than 2 million. Last week the United Nations warned of famine in some areas.
Abiy told parliament in March that reports of assaults there, including gang rape and mass murder, were "exaggerated". However, he said abuses would be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.
The attorney general said last month that more than 50 soldiers were on trial for rape or killing civilians but did not provide details.
Violence has flared up in other regions as well, where ethnic power brokers used the political openness under Abiy to flex their muscles. Hundreds have died in clashes on the border between Oromiya and Amhara, the two most populous regions of Ethiopia.
As Elevator Aboneh, a 32-year-old engineer from Oromiya, said he would vote for Abiy anyway "because a known devil is better than an unknown angel".