Ethiopia postponed parliamentary elections scheduled for August due to the coronavirus outbreak, the electoral board said in, a move endorsed by key opposition parties.
The vote is regarded as an important test of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s reformist agenda in what was once one of the continent’s most repressive nations.
“Due to the pandemic we were forced to suspend activities,” said an Amharic-language statement from the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia. The board will announce a new timeline when the pandemic subsides, it said.
The Horn of Africa nation has 25 confirmed cases of coronavirus to date.
Ethiopia is Africa’s second-most populous nation with 105 million citizens. Abiy promised to liberalise the state-run economy and oversaw reforms including the release of political prisoners, journalists and opposition activists.
Previous elections in Ethiopia, a parliamentary democracy, were marred by allegations of rigging and intimidation.
Abiy promised free and fair elections and has been positioning himself as a unity candidate whose reforms could replace repression as the glue holding Ethiopia’s often fractious federal regions together.
His party would have faced a stiff challenge from newly resurgent regional, ethnically based parties.
Representatives of some regional parties – the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) – would not oppose the delay.
“For now, our priority is to overcome the pandemic,” said Yesuf Ebrahim, NAMA spokesman. Opposition parties and government must discuss what will happen when parliament’s term ends in September, Yesuf said.
Dawud Ibsa, OLF chairman, told Reuters his party was ready for further discussions.
Jawar Mohammed, an activist from Abiy’s Oromo ethnic group, warned the opposition must be consulted during the next steps. Jawar evolved from an Abiy ally to one of his fiercest critics; an unsuccessful attempt to withdraw his government security detail in October caused protests that led to 78 deaths.
“The ruling party cannot and should not make unilateral decisions,” he said.
William Davison, the International Crisis Group think tank’s senior analyst for Ethiopia, said the election postponement could strengthen Ethiopian democracy.
“A start would be the ruling party discussing with opponents critical topics such as conditions for a fair election, transitional justice and reconciliation and the federation’s major political fault lines,” he said.
The openness fostered by Abiy when he became premier in 2018 won him plaudits at home and abroad. It also fanned the embers of long-repressed rivalries between ethnic groups as regional strongmen sought to mobilise local voting blocs.
The resulting clashes, along with natural disasters, forced more than two million people to flee, according to the United Nations, with some now returned.