Hundreds of exiles – many being opposition figures – came back into Ethiopia after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018. Among them was Birtukan Mideksa, who returned after seven years in exile in the United States. She was among opposition leaders who were jailed following the disputed elections of 2005 that claimed the lives of hundreds of people.
Birtukan, a former judge and leading opposition figure, was sworn in as the head of Ethiopia’s electoral board weeks after her return to Ethiopia. Ahmed described her as someone who would “never surrender, even to the government”. At the time, she admitted that she faced a major challenge in restoring faith in an electoral board that had been accused of being a state instrument in previous elections.
On Monday, Birtukan began overseeing the country’s first parliamentary election since Prime Minister Ahmed took office in 2018. The elections come amid rising tensions and a conflict in the northern Tigray region. The poll, which is Ahmed’s first electoral test since coming to power in 2018, was delayed twice due to the pandemic, administrative challenges and security issues.
The vote has been postponed in Tigray due to fighting between the Ethiopian federal army and the militia of the outlawed Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Other parts of the country on Monday complained of insecurity and logistical problems. All in all, there was no voting in about a fifth of constituencies. Some of the country’s biggest opposition parties also boycotted the elections. Those who didn’t get to vote will be able to do so in September and the next government likely will not be formed until then.
Birtukan will of course be in charge of the September polls as well. In a letter to the U.S. Senate in May about the elections, she warned “shortfalls are inevitable given factors such as… a nascent democratic culture and an increasingly charged political and security environment”.
The 47-year-old had begun a career in politics by contesting the 2001 parliamentary election as an independent. She lost to the candidate of the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), saying that her defeat was due to her “limited popularity”. A law graduate from Addis Ababa University, she subsequently became a federal court judge in 2002 but fell out with the government due to her rulings. She resigned and entered politics in 2005, becoming one of the founders of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) coalition.
The CUD did well in the 2005 elections but in the violence that occurred after the polls, Birtukan and other opposition leaders were accused of treason and jailed for life. After 18 months behind bars, she was pardoned in July 2007. However, her pardon was revoked in December 2008 and she spent 21 months in jail. But even before being jailed, she set up the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party. She was freed in October 2010 after Human Rights Watch and other activists condemned her imprisonment.
A year after her release, Birtukan, a single mother of a daughter, resigned from politics and went into exile in the U.S. with her daughter. There, she received a Master of Art (M.A.) in Public Administration from Harvard University and worked for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a U.S. agency that supports democracy around the globe.
In 2018, she returned to Ethiopia after Ahmed took power. The prime minister vowed to ensure good governance and deal with corruption. He also promised to institute measures to deal with ethnic conflicts in the country although he has since waged war in the Tigray election and now facing growing international criticism.
Amid these tensions including election-related problems, Birtukan is doing a good job, according to some opposition party officials. “But the integrity of polls and NEBE are not solely determined by the ability and determination of its leader and capabilities of the reformed electoral body,” an opposition party official who asked for anonymity told Anadolu Agency, adding that “The behaviors of the state which had aborted Ethiopia’s transition to democracy over the last three decades, attitudes of society and election workers play a significant role in making the polls credible.”
More parties and candidates are contesting than ever before in this election, Birtukan said ahead of the polls. She however told reporters on Monday that she was concerned about some election problems that had been witnessed in some regions, adding that some observers are having challenges doing their job.
The election boss had earlier admitted that there will be “serious challenges” and called on the international community to support Ethiopia on “its democratic journey, stressful and imperfect though it is.”