Close to 2.7 million voters were registered in 94 counties for the election in Tigray Regional State.

On the morning of September 9, 2020, four hours before the Tigray Regional State opened polling stations, volunteers were busy making sure everything was in place including the marks on the ground indicating how far apart voters should stand to avoid overcrowding, a precaution to contain the spread of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19).

At 6:00am, the polling station was opened for voters, who lined up on the marked ground to cast their votes in a historic regional election despite the ''null and void'' ruling of the federal government.

As part of the 8,000 youth trained by the Regional Election Commission to support the electoral system, the volunteers served many roles at electoral stations across the State. Administering the polling stations along with the Commission were many groups like the Adi Haqi Shoe Shiners Association, which organised a poll at a district in the region’s capital, Meqelle.

Even voters in their excitement had arrived as early as 1:00am, singing and dancing to pass the time. Meraf Bahta, a resident who works in a construction material supply firm, and her friends were some of them.

“We couldn’t get any sleep,” she said. “So we went to a nearby station.”

Other early arrivers included elderly women draped in traditional cotton dresses and hairstyles, albaso. They were busy preparing food and coffee for election observers and organisers, giving directions to voters and journalists and even helping with the pat-down of female voters as they made their way into the stations. New journalists had a tougher time in one such station, as volunteers were more welcoming to the familiar faces in some stations.

The over 2,600 polling stations accommodated almost all of the 2.7 million voters across the region. Tigray has 38 electoral districts as demarcated by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia based on the seats the Regional State has in the country’s parliament.

The 152 seats in the region’s Council are made up of four candidates running in each of the 38 districts, and each voter was able to cast four votes at their respective polling station. The 38 additional seats in the State Council would be determined by a closed candidates list.

The preliminary count announced by the Commission has shown the incumbent, Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), leading by margins as high as 80pc.

The outcome of the election has surprised many. Some express their disappointment that the four opposition parties did not receive more votes.

Goitom Mekonen, a lecturer at Adigrat University, served as a non-member observer for Salsay Woyane Tigray, an opposition party, in Adigrat. He was a mobile observer moving between six stations to observe the electoral process.

“There was a lot of support on social media for opposition parties, and I had hoped to see that reflected in the votes,” he said. “They need to mobilise grassroots support, so we can reap the benefit of a multiparty democratic system.”

Even so, he is still encouraged by the process. Despite the low share of votes for the opposition, the whole process would have been unimaginable in the last election, according to him.

One inconsistency he noticed was in the voter education process.

Some polling stations gave sufficient directions to voters upon arrival, while others just went straight to the voting process. And though the counting process was clear and open, according to Goitom, discrepancies took time to solve.

“We would reach different numbers of votes for one candidate and had to recount votes, which took a lot of time,” he said.

Despite Goitom's disappointment in the turnout, many still defend their choice for the incumbent citing its work in improving infrastructure and facilities in the country.

Mehret Gebremedhin, a mother of two, aged 20 and 17, is one voter that has cast her vote for TPLF.

“Meqelle is changing for the better,” Mehret said, explaining her vote for the incumbent. “Haven’t you seen all the changes that have come about since Debretsion came to Tigray?”

But the thirst for a multiparty system and different ideas in the political system is still undeniably there. The new parties are aspirational to individuals like Angesome Alemayehu.

He had divided his vote between Salsay Woyane and Tigray Independence Party, both opposition parties.

"I cast my vote for a nationalist party with new ideas and consistency in its ideology," he said.

The election was attended by 61 civil society organisations given a permit to observe the election commission across the Regional State. The civil societies included the Union of Tigreans in North America, Tegezo Advocacy for Justice & Democracy and the Women’s Association of Tigray.

The Irob Advocacy Association, another observer, had 12 mobile observers across 12 polling stations in Irob Special Wereda and 13 polling stations in Adigrat.

“Our efforts were mainly focused in the Special Wereda, as it is more remote,” said Seyoum Yohannes, chairperson for the civil society.

According to Irob’s report, there is no indication of clear violations. The organisation used its own checklist and the guidelines prepared by the Commission for the election along with safety guidelines for the pandemic, according to Seyoum.

However, the election saw a lower number of observers from opposition parties in rural stations across the State. Each party was only able to materialise 300 to 900 observers throughout the Regional State with the likelihoods of opposition party observers dwindling in the rural areas.

Dispelling rumours that opposition parties were traitors that do not have the interest of the region at heart had been a challenging task in the State, according to Girmay Berhe, chairperson of Tigray Independence Party, which dispatched 300 observers.

He also believes that the opposition would have gained better representation if the electoral system had been changed to the proportional system instead of the mixed system the regional government opted for.

“This was suggested by opposition parties to the incumbent," he said, adding that he has no regrets about his party's participation in the election.

“It’s dangerous when the government extends its own term unilaterally," he said. "It was important that the state hold its elections to establish a legitimate government.”

In June, the federal government had postponed the general and regional elections to be held within nine to 12 months after the pandemic no longer poses a risk to public health. It also extended the terms of members of parliament, the House of Federation and regional councils.

Yemane Zeray, an associate professor at Meqelle University's department of political science and strategic studies, says the results of the elections were to be expected.

“Politics has centred on security due to tensions with the federal government,” he said. "As the saying goes, you don’t change horses as you're crossing the river.”

Yemane also states that the short campaign period may also be to blame for the low performance of the opposition parties.

“But this has to be seen in terms of its long-term impact, as the ideas and discussions are sure to influence laws, institutions and political culture.”

PUBLISHED ON Sep 11,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1063]

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