Voting is underway in Ethiopia where tens of millions are casting ballots in crucial local and regional elections.
Voting started early on Monday in what is widely seen as the greatest electoral test yet for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has been in power since 2018.
The election comes amid a guerrilla war in the northern Tigray region and serious logistical issues, which have meant ballots would not be cast in some 110 constituencies of the 547 across the country.
Delayed from last year, Monday’s polls are the centerpiece of a reform drive by Mr. Abiy, whose rise to power had appeared to signal a break with decades of authoritarian rule and led to him winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
Mr. Abiy has described the poll as “the nation’s first attempt at free and fair elections.”
Across the capital, Addis Ababa, long lines of voters were seen in some places, while security was beefed up across other parts of the east African country. Military vehicles were parked in key locations in Addis.
More than 37 million Ethiopians are expected to vote in an election which is not holding in the conflict-prone Tigray region as well as some parts of the populous Oromia region, where Mr. Abiy comes from.
Mr. Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party, formed in 2019 by merging groups who made up the previous ruling coalition, is widely expected to cement its hold on power.
The party that wins a majority of seats in the House of Peoples’ Representatives will form the next government.
Opposition groups have accused the ruling party of harassment, manipulation and threats of violence that echo abuses of the past. Some prominent opposition parties are boycotting the election, notably in the Oromia region. Others say they were prevented from campaigning in several parts of the country.
On Monday, the head of Ethiopia’s election commission, Birtukan Midekssa, writing in The US-based National Interest magazine, acknowledged “serious challenges” but noted that more parties and candidates are contesting than ever before. “I call on the international community to support Ethiopia on its democratic journey, stressful and imperfect though it is,” she wrote.
PM Abiy also is facing mounting international criticism over the war in Tigray, triggered in part because the region’s now-fugitive leaders opposed the postponement of the election last year while citing COVID-19.
No date has been set for voting in Tigray’s thirty-eight constituencies.
Thousands of civilians have so far been killed in Tigray, with widespread famine exacerbating the situation. According to the UN, an estimated 350,000 people, mainly women and children, have fled the region into neighbouring Sudan, amid what observers describe as a drawn-out guerrilla war.