Ethiopia’s Tigray holding regional elections in defiance of federal government

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Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region is holding elections on Wednesday despite a federal edict that the vote is illegal. The polls intensify a confrontation between current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and politicians who dominated the previous administration.

“The vote will go ahead as planned, and we do not expect the federal government to interfere,” Muluwork Kidanemariam, the head of the regional election commission, told Reuters by phone on Tuesday evening.

Ethiopia’s upper house, which mediates constitutional disputes, ruled on Saturday that the polls for regional parliaments and other positions were unconstitutional. Ethiopia had been due to hold national and regional elections in August but postponed them because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tigray’s defiance of the federal government is the latest headache for Abiy, who is struggling to hold together a federation that stitches Ethiopia’s 80 plus ethnic groups into Africa’s second-largest nation.

After decades of repression, he ushered in democratic reforms that helped win him the Nobel Prize. But the new freedoms also fuelled long-suppressed demands for more regional autonomy, rights and resources.

In the past three years, Ethiopia has faced multiple bouts of outbreaks of large-scale ethnic violence, what the government described as an attempt at a regional coup led by rogue security forces, and increasingly insistent demands from smaller ethnic groups for their own regions.

Tigray has dominated Ethiopian politics since guerilla fighters ousted a Marxist dictator in 1991. Its population is relatively small – around 5% of Ethiopia’s 109 million people – but its history in politics means it is wealthier and more influential than many other, larger regions.

On Monday Ethiopian security officials prevented a dozen people, including four journalists and a senior think tank analyst, from flying to Tigray to cover the vote.

Abiy has not specified how he will respond to the polls, although he has ruled out using force. Analysts say the government cut the region’s federal funding, which supplies around half of its budget.