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Bad omens for twice-postponed elections as Western states mull more sanctions

Prime Minister Abiy's opponents will focus on disrupting the elections in every way possible

The announcement by Birtukan Mideksa, chairwoman of The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), that the national elections are to be postponed until 21 June risks producing the worst of all possible worlds.

The new date still doesn't leave enough time to deal with the technical or political obstacles to holding credible elections. Relations between Addis Ababa and the West are falling to their lowest ebb for three decades.

Election troubles, in the form of widely disputed results that, in turn, trigger more conflict, could turn up the international spotlight on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government and its war in Tigray region. On 24 May, the United States imposed visa restrictions on Ethiopian and Eritrean officials it accuses of atrocities in the Tigray conflict and blocking humanitarian relief.

Although Washington will continue funding for health, food and education it will cut or suspend economic and security aid programmes. It would also oppose new International Monetary Fund and World Bank finance and debt relief for Ethiopia.

That could also hit funding for big economic projects such as the liberalisation of the telecoms and banking sectors in which new investors had been set to use funding from the international financial institutions.

The European Union is planning similar measures, according to officials in Brussels. In March, the EU imposed sanctions on officials in Eritrea's National Security Agency.

Earlier this month the EU cancelled its election monitoring mission because it couldn't secure the guarantees it was seeking. In Washington DC, a group of US Senators set out their demands for a delay in Ethiopia's elections in a letter to President Joe Biden's Special Envoy, Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman. That was significant because opposition in the US Congress to Abiy's handling of the Tigray war is nudging the State Department into taking a tougher line.

Last month Birtukan had warned that delays in voter registration could force the postponement of the general elections, the second in under a year. And low levels of voter registration would undermine the credibility of the elections, perhaps worsening security conditions.

There will be no repeat of the 2005 elections, regarded as Ethiopia's most credible yet, which saw a 90% voter turnout and parties opposing the ruling coalition gleaning about 44% of the votes. The situation in Tigray, where polls will not be held,  and clashes in areas such as Benishangul-Gumuz, and parts of the Oromia and Somali regions will militate against a strong turnout.

Earlier this month, officials said the election campaign had started, registration was on track and that there was no chance of any further delays. But reports that registration had barely started in a number of provinces quickly forced them to backtrack (AC Vol 62 No 9, Issayas in for the long haul). 


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