Ethiopians are voting in a crucial parliamentary election taking place against the backdrop of war and famine in the northern Tigray region, with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed expected to cement his hold on power.
Voting began in the capital Addis Ababa soon after the expected start time of 6am (03:00 GMT) with voters in face masks wrapped in blankets against the pre-dawn chill. Electoral officials in purple vests sprayed voters’ hands with sanitiser before checking their IDs against the register as part of measures against COVID. Polls will close at 6pm (15:00GMT).
“Many Ethiopians went to the polls very early in the morning, as early as 4am in many places, to cast their vote,” said Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Adow from Addis Ababa.
“The electoral commission has increased the number of polling stations across the country to avoid large crowds from gathering at polling centres to reduce the risk of spreading COVID but also to hasten the voting process.”
It is the first electoral test for Abiy Ahmed, 44, who rose to power in 2018 championing a democratic revival in Africa’s second-most populous country, and a break from its authoritarian past.
“This election is different,” said Milyon Gebregziabher, a 45-year-old travel agent voting in the centre of Addis Ababa.
“There are a number of parties to choose from. In the past there was just one, we did not have the luxury of choice.”
Abiy, a Nobel Peace laureate who freed political prisoners, welcomed back exiles and ended a long cold war with neighbouring Eritrea before sending troops to confront the dissident leadership of Tigray late last year, has promised this election will be Ethiopia’s most competitive in history, free of the repression that marred previous ballots.
But the spectre of famine caused by the ongoing fighting in Tigray, and the failure to stage elections on schedule in about one-fifth of constituencies, means that promise is in doubt.“I believe this election will shine a light of democracy on Ethiopia,” said Yordanos Berhanu, a 26-year-old accountant at the head of a queue of hundreds.
“As a young Ethiopian, I (have) hope for the future of my country, and believe voting is part of that,” she said before slipping her ballot papers into a purple plastic box for the national vote and a light green one for the regional election.