ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopia has postponed parliamentary elections scheduled for August due to the coronavirus outbreak, the electoral board said on Tuesday, a move endorsed by some key opposition parties.
The vote had been regarded as an important test of the reformist agenda of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in what was once one of the continent’s most repressive nations.
“Due to the pandemic we were forced to suspend our activities,” said an Amharic-language statement from the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia. The board will announce a new timeline once the pandemic has subsided, it said.
The Horn of Africa nation has 25 confirmed cases of coronavirus so far.
Ethiopia is Africa’s second-most populous nation with 105 million citizens. Abiy promised to liberalise the state-run economy and oversaw reforms that freed thousands of political prisoners, journalists and opposition activists.
Previous elections in Ethiopia, a parliamentary democracy, have been marred by allegations of rigging and intimidation.
Abiy has promised to hold 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.
But his party would have faced a stiff challenge from many newly resurgent regional, ethnically based parties.
Representatives of some of the regional parties - the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) - said they would not oppose the delay.
“For now, our priority is how to overcome the pandemic,” said Yesuf Ebrahim, NAMA’s spokesman. Opposition parties and the government must discuss what will happen when parliament’s term ends in September, Yesuf said.
Dawud Ibsa, OLF’s chairman, told Reuters that his party was ready for further discussions.
But Jawar Mohammed, a prominent activist from Abiy’s Oromo ethnic group, warned that the opposition must be consulted during the next steps. Jawar has evolved from Abiy’s 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 be used to strengthen Ethiopian democracy.
“A start would be the ruling party discussing with opponents critical topics such as the 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. But 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 2 million people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations, although some have now returned.
(This story corrects paragraph 12 to remove incorrect reference to attempted arrest of Jawar)
Reporting by Dawit Endeshaw in Addis Ababa; Writing by Katharine Houreld and Duncan Miriri; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Matthew Lewis