Ethiopia has again delayed its national election after some opposition parties said they wouldn't take part and as conflict in the country's Tigray region means no vote is being held there, further complicating Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's efforts to centralize power.
The head of the national elections board, Birtukan Mideksa, in a meeting Saturday with political parties' representatives, said the June 5 vote in Africa's second most populous country would be postponed, citing the need to finish printing ballots, training staffers and compiling voters' information. The board said she estimated a delay of two to three weeks.
Ethiopia last year delayed the vote, the first major electoral test for Abiy, citing the COVID-19 pandemic. That heightened tensions with the Tigray region's leaders, who declared that the prime minister's mandate had ended and defiantly held a regional vote of their own that Ethiopia called illegal.
Since then, war in Tigray has killed thousands and led the United States to allege that ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans was being carried out in the western part of Tigray, a region of 6 million people. Ethnic cleansing refers to forcing a population from a region through expulsions and other violence, often including killings and rapes.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday said the U.S. was "gravely concerned by the increasing number of confirmed cases of military forces blocking humanitarian access" to parts of Tigray, calling it "unacceptable behavior." The statement again urged the immediate withdrawal from Tigray of soldiers from neighboring Eritrea who witnesses say have blocked or looted aid and carried out atrocities including gang rapes.
"Both Eritrean and Ethiopian authorities have repeatedly promised such a withdrawal," Blinken said.
Ethiopia's prime minister, who introduced sweeping political reforms after taking office in 2018 and won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year, has vowed that this election would be free and fair. Abiy will keep his post if his Prosperity Party wins a majority of seats in the national assembly.
But questions about the vote have been growing amid sometimes deadly ethnic tensions in other parts of the country of about 110 million people and more than 80 ethnic groups.
The campaign director for one of Ethiopia's largest opposition parties, Yilkal Getnet with the Hibir Ethiopia Democratic Party, told The Associated Press his party has long believed the country is not ready to hold an election at this time.
"There are lots of peace and security challenges across the country in addition to the border issue with Sudan," Yilkal said, adding that the safety of millions is in question. "As opposed to the ruling party's thinking, we don't believe that the election will solve these problems. A national dialogue on a range of issues should come first."
The European Union recently said it would not observe the vote, saying Ethiopia failed to guarantee the independence of its mission and refused its requests to allow the importation of communications equipment. Ethiopia replied that external observers "are neither essential nor necessary to certify the credibility of an election."
Opposition party withdraws
The opposition Oromo Federalist Congress earlier this year pulled out of the vote. Several of the party's leaders remain behind bars after a wave of violence last year sparked by the killing of a popular Omoro musician.
Late last month, five U.S. senators wrote to the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, expressing concerns about Ethiopia's ability to hold fair elections while the Tigray conflict continues.
In response to that, Ethiopia's national election board said it was striving to ensure the poll will be free.
"Shortfalls are inevitable given factors such as population size, development deficits at all levels, a nascent democratic culture and an increasingly charged political and security environment," it said.
The election board has said 36.2 million people have registered to vote. It was hoped that up to 50 million would do so.
"We are deeply concerned about increasing political and ethnic polarization throughout the country," the State Department said Friday.