Ethiopia, which has a mixed record when it comes to elections, is waiting with bated breath as its sixth national poll is held on June 21.
Monday's election will be a crucial test for the legitimate government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power three years ago following public unrest and crisis in the ruling EPRDF.
While many describe the vote as the most important ever in the country’s history, others say the outcome will not resolve the chronic problems Ethiopia faces.
When Prime Minister Abiy came to power in 2018, his administration was praised for its liberal reforms. Political prisoners were released, exiled parties were invited to return and half the political cabinet was made up of women for the first time ever.
However, the government was criticized for failing to maintain stability in the country. What hope does this national election bring to 104 million people when ethnic tensions, conflict and internal displacement remains huge problems for the country?
Over the past few months, political parties have lobbied the public to give their votes, using billboards, broadcast, and social media to ram their message home. In a recent tweet, Prime Minister Abiy wrote: “I would like to assure all Ethiopians that we will do our very best to hold a better, free and fair election than previous years.”
Ashebir Amare, 35, a resident of Dessie town, in Amhara, is a tailor who runs a small business. This year's election for him is different from the two elections in which he has previously voted, as he is hopeful that the poll will heal wounds across his country.
“I registered as a voter recently when voter registration was announced. I am expecting a lot from this election. Trust me, it would restore our fragile national unity,” Ashebir told Addis Zeybe.
For him, the political parties are trying their best in terms of selling their ideas to voters and he describes the ongoing election process as incomparable to other less reliable and fair elections. He advises citizens to take responsibility for the vote. The people are different, both during and after the election, he says.
But many issues leave voters worried. There is an ongoing conflict in Tigray with subsequent food shortages in the region. Then there are tensions with Egypt and Sudan due to The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project. Together with the imposed sanctions and aid cuts from the US, fears are growing that tensions could escalate in the aftermath of a disputed election.
Some observers say that there was little hope that things would change after the election, and that little attention has been paid to the campaign as a result.
This election also does feel much different than others. Some exiled political fractions have returned home following the reforms and are taking part in campaigning.
Abdullahi Yusuf, a lawyer, and university lecturer is in his early thirties and comes from Jigjiga in the Somali region.
He acknowledges that political parties have been able to conduct election campaigns freely. In past elections, this was not the case due to the unstable political environment. “This will enable the voters this time round to give their vote based on rational facts and genuine, personal evaluations.”
Political parties should not only pursue their own goals but also exchange information with the people and the government to ensure the election ends peacefully, he added.
Kalkidan Mechal, a 20-year-old resident from Hawasssa, has a different story about the election since for her it is the first time she has ever got to vote as an adult.
“This is the most memorable moment in my life where I can exercise my democratic right for the first time,” added Kalkidan, who works as a salesperson for a beverage company.
When asked about how she felt about the pre-election campaign, she said she did not pay attention to the election debates, saying she had her own criteria for deciding which political candidate to vote for.
Another voter urged the government to call for an inclusive national dialogue to build a national consensus on the future of the country.
“Whoever wins the election, what we need is peace and peace only,” said Almaz Tadesse, a resident of Addis Ababa. “Over the past years, we have heard the news of conflict, killings, instability, and displacement, just every day. We want these things to end,” she added
After postponing the election twice – citing the COVID- 19 pandemic and the conflict in Tigray – the National Ethiopian Board of Ethiopia scheduled the poll to be held on June 21, 2021, except two regional states Harar and Somali which would cast their vote in September, due to irregularities and problems with the printing of ballot papers.
According to The National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), some 37,408,600 voters, with about 1.8 million from the capital Addis Ababa, are registered for the upcoming sixth general elections.
Nearly 50 parties are vying for parliamentary seats. Voters will elect 547 members of the federal parliament and the leader of the winning party becomes prime minister.
The Prosperity Party, which is led by Prime Minister Abiy, is the frontrunner and has registered 2,432 candidates in the election. The next largest party, Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (ECSJ), is fielding 1,385 candidates.
Matios Desta, 32 lives in the Benishangul-Gumuz region, Asossa, where he works as a driver. He said that he had no faith in the election process and that he had decided not to vote and would "observe from the sidelines."
He added: “I do not intend to vote because I do not believe there will be a fair and just election."
Nesiru Ahmed, a University student from Wolkite in the Gurage zone, decided to vote on Monday. He says he has observed various election campaigns in his area. "People have different opinions. There are those who registered for the election and those who did not, " he says.
Marta Hayle, 29, a merchant in Mekele, the regional state of Tigray, says this election will bring no change for the country which she believes is “disintegrating”.
She adds: “No doubt the ruling party will fully win the election through cheating.”
Teshager Endalkachew, 30, from Dire Dawa, added: "I wish that this election time will pass peacefully. I have fears when remembering the 2004 election, that ended in bloody conflict.”
For him the participation of the new parties in the election, the commitment of politicians to respect the Electoral Board, and the relative freedom of expression, give hope.
“I have followed the heated pre-election campaign, " said another youth from Dire Dawa. "I don't think there is anything to worry about, but let the government do its duty to protect the people"