Ethiopia is preparing to hold crucial and twice-delayed elections across the country on June 21, despite growing concern over the credibility of the vote as well as a famine in war-torn Tigray.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, appointed in 2018 after years of anti-government unrest, craves a popular mandate through competitive elections to cement a promised democratic rebirth in Africa's second-most populous nation.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner is pushing ahead with the election despite ongoing fighting and a humanitarian crisis in Tigray, where voting will not proceed on Monday, along with some other restive parts of the country.
Opposition parties in other pivotal regions are boycotting the election, the sixth since the end of military rule in Ethiopia 30 years ago.
All previous ballots fell short of international standards for fairness, and Abiy -- who won early praise for embarking on democratic and economic reforms -- insists that June 21 will mark a departure from the authoritarian past.
"A week from today, Ethiopians we will cast our vote in the sixth national elections, which will be the nation's first attempt at free and fair elections," Abiy posted on Twitter on Monday.
"Go out and vote next Monday... let's make it a positively historic day together!"
- Tigray -
But the war in Tigray -- not Abiy's much-vaunted vote -- has been the focus of global concern, with appeals from the pope and world leaders at the G7 for the bloodshed to end.
UN agencies say 350,000 people in the northern region are barely surviving in famine conditions, including tens of thousands of malnourished children. Ethiopia disputes the figures and says aid groups have been granted unfettered access to the region.
Abiy's reputation as a reformist and peacemaker has been seriously dented since he sent the army into Tigray in November to oust the ruling TPLF party there.
Eritrean soldiers and allied militias joined the fight, which Abiy promised would be short but have dragged on for seven months. The conflict has been characterized by terrible atrocities and alleged ethnic cleansing.
There will be no vote in the mountainous region of six million on June 21, with no future date set.
But Tigray -- with 38 of the 547 seats in Ethiopia's national parliament -- is just one place where no ballots will be cast Monday.
Ethnic violence and logistical setbacks forced the National Election Board of Ethiopia to postpone voting in numerous locations until September 6. The board has not specified the exact number of constituencies affected, but there are dozens in addition to Tigray.
- 'Obstacles' -
The United States, historically an ally of Ethiopia but an increasingly vocal critic as the Tigray conflict drags on, has expressed alarm at the conditions under which the vote will occur.
The detention of prominent opposition leaders and ethnic conflict roiling swathes of the country pose "obstacles to a free and fair electoral process and whether Ethiopians would perceive them as credible," State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week.
"The exclusion of large segments of the electorate from this contest due to security issues and internal displacement is particularly troubling," he added.
The European Union said in May it would not send observers to the polls, citing a failure to reach an agreement with the government on basic issues like communications and the observers' independence.
Staging nationwide elections is a logistical feat at the best of times in the enormous nation of 110 million where poor infrastructure barely reaches into remoter parts of savannah, mountain and desert terrain.
The coronavirus pandemic forced the first postponement in August 2020, then the vote was pushed back to June 21 because of technical problems, including a massive shortage of election officials and slow voter registration.
In early June, with the vote just weeks away, the board said ballot paper irregularities and fake polling stations had hindered preparations, but that about 37 million voters had registered.
Abiy's Prosperity Party is fielding the most candidates for national parliamentary races and is the firm favorite to win, with a broad reach unmatched by other political parties.
The campaign has been muted in the capital Addis Ababa, while south of the capital in Hawassa, an AFP journalist this week noted a near-total absence of opposition posters.