Ethiopia postpones June 5 parliamentary elections
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ADDIS ABABA - The head of Ethiopia's election board said Saturday it would be impossible to hold parliamentary elections as planned on June 5, due to mounting logistical issues, without giving a new date.
When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power three years ago, he promised to break from Ethiopia's authoritarian past and hold the most democratic elections the country has ever seen.
The elections had already been delayed from last August due to the coronavirus pandemic, and problems have only mounted since, with a conflict in the northern Tigray region and brutal ethnic violence in several areas.
"The vote will not happen on June 5 ... we can't tell you the date as the board has to examine the inputs it received from parties," said election board chairwoman Birtukan Mideksa.
She cited a plethora of logistical delays, such as finalising voter registration, training electoral staff, printing and distributing ballot papers.
"Practically, it became impossible to deliver all these at the originally slated dates."
Mideksa said the new date would take into account the rainy season -- which runs from about June to September.
With just weeks to go to the election there had been few signs of campaigning, and several opposition parties planned to boycott the vote, describing it as a "farce".
The nation of 110 million people was due to choose national and regional parliamentarians via the ballot box.
The MPs elect the prime minister, who is head of government, as well as the president -- a largely ceremonial role.
Even with the delay, numerous security crises are expected to make voting impossible in large swathes of the country.
This includes the northern Tigray region, where Abiy launched a military operation in November last year that has turned into a grinding war, with massacres, brutal sexual violence and humanitarian misery.
Birtukan said that some 36 million voters had registered so far, with no registration taking place at all in some areas which have seen ethnic violence, including in the country's most populous regions, Oromia and Amhara.
Peace prize to war
Abiy came to power in 2018, after years of protests by the two largest ethnic groups -- the Oromos and Amharas -- forced his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn to step down.
The country's first ever Oromo premier sparked hope as he released dissidents from jail, apologised for state brutality and welcomed home exiled groups -- part of a democratic rebirth meant to culminate in the most competitive elections in Ethiopia's history.
The ruling coalition that preceded Abiy claimed staggering majorities in the two previous elections, which observers said fell far short of international standards for fairness.
A more open contest in 2005 saw big gains for the opposition but led to a lethal crackdown on protests over contested results.
Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his reforms, which included ending a long conflict with neighbouring Eritrea over a border dispute.
Abiy dismantled the ruling EPRDF coalition, forming his Prosperity Party, sidelining the powerful Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) which had dominated national politics for decades.
The TPLF increasingly defied his authority, holding their own regional elections despite the coronavirus delay.
The feud erupted into violence when the prime minister sent troops into Tigray to oust the party which he accused of attacking federal military camps, but what was billed as a brief military campaign has turned into a grinding conflict with no end in sight.
Meanwhile ethnic violence has worsened, with hundreds killed since March in attacks in Amhara region, adding to a mounting toll in several hotspots.
Ethiopia is divided into 10 semi-autonomous federal regions, largely carved out along ethnic lines, and land and political disputes between and within the states often spark violence.
Analysts say Abiy's reforms to open up politics, after years of iron-fisted rule in the country, have led to a hardening of ethno-nationalism and jockeying for power.