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Ethiopia's Tigray Region Votes in Defiance of Government

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station during Tigray’s regional elections, in the town of Tikul, 15 kms east from Mekele, Ethiopia, Sept. 9, 2020.
A woman casts her ballot at a polling station during Tigray’s regional elections, in the town of Tikul, 15 kms east from Mekele, Ethiopia, Sept. 9, 2020.

Polls opened in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region on Wednesday, in defiance of the federal government. The ballot is a direct challenge to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who postponed general elections earlier this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tigray Independence Party, which came into existence after Ahmed's 2018 election, is pushing to breakaway from Ethiopia.

The regional vote has rattled the government of Prime Minister Abiy as he attempts to transition the country into a new era of greater openness.

The Tigray region, which led a multi-party government coalition for 27 years prior to Abiy coming to power, staunchly opposed the government’s decision in March to postpone the national election because of the coronavirus. It has called any attempt to prevent its regional vote from going ahead “declaration of war.”

But critics of the Tigray region’s push for elections say the country’s former elite are simply using the vote to further their own interests in national politics and vent frustration they are no longer in power.

Asnake Kefale, an associate professor at the University of Addis Ababa, spoke to VOA via a messaging app.

"The TPLF and sections of Tigray nationalists are talking about de-facto independence. I don’t think so. That will not be the case. Rather, they are creating such narratives to strengthen whatever claims they have in national politics. I don’t think Tigray will secede from the rest of Ethiopia.”

Asnake also described the point of view that Ethiopia may fall apart as a caricature and said that people have forgotten that the very people organizing the vote in Tigray were the same people who led a deeply repressive regime that carried out human rights abuses on its own people.

“It’s a Marxist-Leninist organization. It didn’t allow any free competition in the last 27 years. They are very much mad and angry because they were pushed aside.”

The Tigray Independence Party, which was formed in June, says full secession from Ethiopia is ultimate goal.

Party leader Girmay Berhe told VOA that he fully expected his party to gain its first seats in the regional parliament. He also said he thinks the election will draw a response from the federal government, likely pressuring people not to invest fueling tensions between the Amhara and Tigray regions.

Girmay added that in the aftermath of the election the federal government may fail to recognize the legitimacy of the Tigray regional government, a situation he said that could fuel calls for full independence.

“In this situation, the government of Tigray may start to act as a kind of de-facto state. Depending on what things come around after that, there’s a possibility for Tigray to declare independence unilaterally. We will be pushing for this agenda.”

On the eve of the Tigray election, Prime Minister Abiy dubbed the poll a “merry-go-round” and said the failure of the region to participate in the upcoming national election would render the regional government totally illegitimate.