Ethiopia’s Tigray region plans to hold elections, its main party said, setting it on a collision course with the federal government and testing the country’s fragile unity.
In March the Horn of Africa country postponed August parliamentary and regional elections due to the coronavirus outbreak. A new date has yet to be set and parliament failed to decide on one in a meeting on Tuesday.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the region’s governing party, split from the national Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition last year when its three other parties merged to form the new Prosperity Party.
The TPLF earlier this week it would proceed with elections in Tigray despite the nationwide postponement of voting.
“We are making preparations including holding a regional election to safeguard the rights of our people from chaos,” a TPLF statement said. It did not give a date for the vote.
Ethiopia’s National Elections Board said no request for a vote was submitted by TPLF and no organisation other than the NEBE had a mandate to approve any type of election.
The EPRDF that seized power in 1991 was dominated by minority Tigrayans and kept a lid on bubbling tensions for decades by quashing virtually all dissent, including ethnic nationalism.
When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took power in Africa’s second most populous country in 2018, he rolled out reforms allowing greater freedoms in what had long been one of Africa’s most repressive states.
The reforms made it possible for long-held grievances against the government’s decades of harsh rule to resurface and emboldened regional power-brokers such as the TPLF seeking to secure more power for ethnic groups.
Jawar Mohammed, an activist from Abiy’s Oromo ethnic group, told Reuters the Tigray dispute could destabilise the Horn of Africa.
“Federal and Tigray authorities are being unreasonable. The Tigray regional council can hold elections and has power to actually carry out the election,” Jawar said.
The TPLF statement accused Abiy’s Prosperity Party of having no genuine interest in elections and was using the coronavirus pandemic as “an excuse to establish a one man dictatorship”.
The PP rebuffed the accusation. “The TPLF stand has no constitutional basis. They have no mandate to hold elections. They are trying to destabilise the country in an attempt to grab power,” PP spokesman Awelu Abdi said.
Ethiopia’s constitution sets a maximum five year term for national government. Abiy’s mandate expires in September.
William Davison, International Crisis Group senior analyst for Ethiopia, said the TPLF’s decision to proceed with elections ahead of the rest of the country could be politically explosive given a lack of legal clarity.
“It threatens to deepen Ethiopia’s political crisis, as the legality of regions holding polls without federal permission is unclear and disputed,” he told Reuters.