Ethiopians queue for hours to cast ballots in first 'free' election

Twice-delayed vote goes ahead under tight security as country struggled with conflict and unemployment

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Elections described by Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as the country's "first attempt at a free and fair election" took place on Monday.

Voting was delayed in some areas and cancelled in the Tigray region.

Polls opened at 6am under tight security and Mr Abiy's office said "physical force deployments" had been sent to areas across the country. Voters queued for hours outside polling stations.

Ashenafi Teklu waited for more than four hours in the early morning to cast his vote in the capital Addis Ababa.

The entrepreneur wanted to cast his vote to pass judgment on the prime minister, a Nobel laureate, with the country still facing conflict, high unemployment, Covid-19 and concerns foreign investors are being scared off.

"I opened my shop late to ensure my voice is included in this election," he told The National.

“I hope this will help determine the kind of future I want for myself, my children and Ethiopia.”

This handout picture taken and released by the Ethiopia Prime Minister Office in Beshasha, near Jimma, Ethiopia on June 21, 2021, shows Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed gesturing after casting his ballot at a polling station. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO/ETHIOPIA PRIME MINISTER OFFICE " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

Last November, at the beginning of the conflict in Tigray, Asian textile manufacturers who were concentrated in Ethiopia’s once booming industrial parks removed foreign staff and closed most of their local operations.

The move added to Ethiopia's unemployment burden.

Even worse, Tigray is on the brink of famine, with more than 90 per cent of its population experiencing food shortages as a result of the conflict.

Thousands of people have fled across the border to Sudan to escape the fighting.

No votes were cast in the northern region, undermining claims of a boost for democracy in Ethiopia.

Monday's vote was delayed twice by the government over concerns about the spread of Covid-19 and security.

This month, Ethiopia’s electoral board decided to move ahead with a partial election across the nation, but delayed polls in both the Somali and Harari regions.

Voters in more than 100 of Ethiopia’s 547 constituencies were not be able to cast their ballots on Monday.

The opposition has largely decided to boycott the election because most of its leadership remain in jail, including Jawar Mohammed, a political activist who helped to organise a series of high-profile protests in 2016.

The Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party said it lodged 207 complaints over election procedure on Monday because they had been prevented from entering many polling stations in the Amhara region and in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region.

Almaz Tadesse, 64, waited for hours to cast her vote, but said it was worth waiting.

“Life in Ethiopia has become unbearable, with a high cost of living, fast rising costs on commodities," she said.

"But what is at stake is our nation and its future as it is on the brink of a disaster and the only one who can save it from the old era of [the Tigray People’s Liberation Front] is Abiy Ahmed."

She said Mr Abiy helped to end the group's dominance over Ethiopian politics.

The last time she voted was in 2005, when a national election was disrupted after the TPLF-led government of Meles Zenawi claimed victory, creating a long-standing opposition that ultimately made way for Mr Abiy.

Sissy Selassie-Mariam, 31, queued in the early hours of Monday to cast his vote in the Bole area of Addis Ababa.

“I did not think I would see an election in my lifetime and while I see shortcomings, this is the beginning and we should not expect perfection. I am just happy to be counted and for my vote to be respected,” he said.

“I hope security will be restored and we can co-exist in harmony.”