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Incumbent vs Challenger: Who Would have an Advantage in Tigray’s Election?

Asayehgn Desta, Sarlo Distinguished Professor, Dominican University of California

After the “National Electoral Board of Ethiopia abandoned vote preparations in March due to the Arrival of COVID-19” (International Crisis Group, August 14, 2020), embracing their constitutional rights, the Administrative State Council of Tigray expressed its desire to run polls’ election and scheduled it for September, 9, 2020 -- instead of waiting for a year until after the World Health Organization (WHO) would hopefully confirm the end of the pandemic coronavirus pandemic.

Consequentially, the Regional Council of Tigray has emphatically urged political parties and individuals to participate in the election process to broaden the political space in Tigray. To accommodate and amplify the voices of disenfranchised and marginalized parties, the Regional Council has broken TPLF’s mono-party and is in the process of forming a mixed-type electoral system.  A mixed electoral system combines “first- past-the post” (FPTP, where candidates with the most votes take all electoral votes) with elements of the Proportional Representation (PR, an electoral process that ritualizes the principle of equal representation of all parties in the election process).

Stated differently, Tigray’s Electoral Commission has now empowered the newly emerging political parties in Tigray to set their foot in the doorsteps of the Administrative Regional Council and have meaningful opportunities to exercise their rights. To achieve this, it is formally combing 80 percent (152 seats) of the candidates elected via FPTP with 20 percent (38 seats) of the marginalized political groups to be elected via PR electoral system.

Tentatively observed, the electoral framework that has been initiated by the Electoral Council seems not only shade democratic lights but also is framed within the legal self-rule rights-- Article 39 of the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution. More than ever, the people of Tigray (Tagarus) have tightened their belts and are consciously ready to stand against any range of punitive measures (such as- budgetary, economic and military action) that the Abiy’s Government has been contemplating to disrupt the Regional Administrative of Tigray from holding the vote on schedule.

Despite the deadly COVID-19 pandemic-induced complications, more than 2.75 million voters in Tigray are now registered and have indicated that they are committed to cast their ballots on September 9, 2020.

Leaving aside Abiy’s hyperbole, the most important glaring issue that seems to manifest in Tigray is that the electorate feel that the mixed electoral system is lopsided. More particularly, the newly formed Political Parties-- Asembia, Batonya,  Nasanet Tigray and Salsie Weyena-- feel that the mixed electoral system seems to be tailored to give an advantage to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).  In addition to the designed electoral process,  the different political parties feel that TPLF has an added advantage because it:  1) has an accolade for being the liberator of the whole country from seventeen years of military dictatorship; 2) has remained as an incumbent political party in Tigray for more thirty years; 3) has full control over the apparatus of the State; and 4) could give an impression to the electorate that it is the only party that has the necessary experience to forcefully deter the various threats the Abiy’s controlled Central Government is anticipated to unleash on Tigray.    

As noted above, instead of designing the electoral process in Tigray to favor multiple parties, it is a mixed-party system. That is, while 20 percent of the seats in the Regional Council are subject to be determined by the more democratic Proportional Representation system, the remaining 80 percent have been bestowed to the cadre-based TPLF Party. Given this electoral process, it could be argued that the entrenched TPLF Party is automatically given the majority of the votes within the 38 constituencies. 

On the one hand, it can be argued that the newly engineered electoral process has enabled the Tagarus to be active participants rather than remaining spectators as before.  For example, as observed in the debating process, I feel that Tigray should be proud of its young politicians. If given the chance, all political parties represented in the debating process seem to be ready to acquire and exercise political power. In contrast to the last five elections that implicitly required -- that candidates need to be cadres, embracing and espousing the ideology of the TPLF Party, the other political party candidates have tried to put the incumbent TPLF Party on defense. With limited campaign experience, the political challengers demonstrated have demonstrated a high level of motivation and readiness to challenge the TPLF Party on a number of social issues.      

As the political process is unfolding, the political parties in Tigray need to undertake grassroots campaign that are loaded with consistent and understandable messages. To offer their visions for the future, the political parties need to frame forward their aspirational road map (the vision and mission) of their parties. While galvanizing their political campaigning, the political parties needs to map out the missions (such as: vibrant economy, rural quality of life, sense of community,  etc.) and also need to have tailor-made   strategies for meeting needs, for example solving the health, water, and  educational  problems of their communities.  

As defenders of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), as observed on television, the entrenched incumbent TPLF Party has seemed to align its plan in concordance with EPRDF’s Developmental State model.  In short, it has strongly argued that State-led intervention, rather than relying on the uncoordinated influence of market forces is necessary to allocate economic resources. Given this, -- the TPLF Party has advocated that Tigray will remain vibrant if its economy is tailored to fulfill the development-oriented paradigm. By practicing the Developmental State model, the representative of TPLF Party further pointed-out that Tigray has already achieved a better way of life and it has been operating in a democratic process that encourages accountability, transparency, and the participation of the Tigarus in policy-making.  

Though very lofty and is very parochial, the Nasanet Tigray (Tigray Independent Party) overwhelmingly rested its position on a very hypothetical note.  It strongly argued that the people of Tigray need to be set free from Ethiopia. In other words, the Tigray Independent Party has argued that Tigray could be rebuilt to look like the prosperous and mighty Axum Empire of the past, provided it is set free from the shackles of Ethiopia’s domination that it is facing currently.  

From the debates in which they participated, the proponents of the Asimba Party did not attempt to articulate the vision and missions of their party. However, in between the lines, one gets the impression that the Asimba Party is typically--   geographical-oriented. Thus, the Asimba Party should not be outrightly dismissed. It is most likely positioned to get votes within its geographical location.      

As the former members of the Ariena Party, the Baitona and Salesi Wayene Parties seem to reflect remarkably similar ideas.  Stated briefly, they focused on building mass-based political movements in order to foment and evolve grassroot movements. However, assuming that the Baitona’s Party had developed their book to rebuilding a populist social movement, their idea of empowering Tagarus en masse by focusing on people-oriented development could definitely entice many followers.      

Due to the pandemic virus, COVID-19, it is incredibly challenging to run an effective political campaigns, clearly articulating messages to the electorate or registered voters. For example, in rural Tigray, the political challengers will face difficulty establishing grassroots campaigns that are necessary for clout, visibility, and influence.  Similarly, some of the health-related restraining activities imposed by the State, such as, shutting down in-person campaigning, restrictions on meeting with candidates, and curtailment of door-to-door canvassing could make  establishing  -- political campaigns difficult in urban Tigray areas.

There is no doubt that the spread of COVID-19 could cause impenetrable hurdles to effectively campaign in Tigray. Nonetheless, it needs to be underlined that when compared with the other challengers, the TPLF is in a better position. As an entrenched incumbent, the TPLF can entice more turnouts because it can establish contact through the administrative apparatus of the State. As criticized by challengers, by promising kickbacks, the TPLF Party can unfairly entice voters.

Despite possible projections that the incumbent TPLF Party might have a strong chance to win the majority of the seats in the Regional Council, one thing is quite clear --instead of one party, currently, five political parties (TPLF, Asembia, Batonya,  Nasanet Tigray and Salsie Weyena) are participating in Tigray’s electoral process. Thus, in defiance to the cart blanche that was freely given by Prime Minister Abiye to governors and members of the Regional Council of Tigray that they could easily extend their power by using the pandemic, more than 2.75 million Tagarus have decided to go the polls on September 9, 2020, respecting their inalienable rights to vote for their next representatives in Tigray’s Electoral Council. Therefore, despite challenges, the lessons that we can learn from the electoral process in Tigray is that the sown seeds of the core institutions of democracy are highly likely to blossom in Ethiopia.  


International Crisis Group (14 August 2020). “Toward an End to Ethiopia’s Federal-Tigray Feud.” Briefing, 160/Africa. Accessed at https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/ethiopia/b160-toward-end-ethiopias-federal-tigray-feud