ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, he introduced a raft of reforms aimed at helping Ethiopia transition from an authoritarian state to an inclusive democracy, actions that helped win him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
But his plans have faced resistance — and a particularly daunting challenge came on Wednesday when Ethiopia’s northernmost region of Tigray went ahead and held parliamentary elections that Mr. Abiy has called “unconstitutional” and “illegal.”
Officials in Tigray, as well as groups opposed to Mr. Abiy’s rule, had been infuriated when the federal government, citing the coronavirus pandemic, postponed general elections that were supposed to be held in August. The tentative new plan to hold the elections some time in 2021 extended the government’s term by at least nine months. Leaders in the Tigray region and members of opposition groups said they weren’t adequately consulted, and accused Mr. Abiy of a power grab.
The standoff in the restive region of Tigray has heightened already bubbling political tensions in Ethiopia, Africa’s second most-populous nation. Mounting insecurity, internal displacement and communal violence have threatened to tear at the multiethnic fabric of Ethiopian society.
“The elections show the level of division among the country’s political elite,” said Asnake Kefale, an associate professor of political science at Addis Ababa University.
Tigrayans comprise only six percent of Ethiopia’s population of 110 million, but they have had outsized influence in the country since leading the armed struggle that removed the communist regime in 1991. But since Mr. Abiy came to office, saying he wanted to distribute power more evenly, the Tigrayans’ political and economic clout has been diminished. Officials from the region have also faced arrest in both security and corruption-related cases — leaving many Tigrayans angered and alienated.
Some in Tigray have entertained the notion of secession from Ethiopia. Others have taken the tack of pressing for more autonomy, and more freedom to promote their own language and culture. But it is notable that the elections on Wednesday also included The Tigray Independence Party, which was recently formed and which calls for secession.
The Tigray election comes almost two months after the country was gripped by deadly protests following the killing of prominent singer Hachalu Hundessa, a champion of the Oromo ethnic group, the country’s largest, which has long complained of political and economic marginalization. (Mr. Abiy is also Oromo.) Hundreds of people were killed in the capital, Addis Ababa, and the neighboring Oromia region, while businesses, schools and factories were burned. Authorities also shut down the internet and arrested more than 9,000 people, according to the state-run Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. Many of those detained were arrested without charges, Human Rights Watch said.
Among those arrested were journalists, activists and opposition figures, including Jawar Mohammed, a media tycoon who is Oromo and who has risen to become one of the prime minister’s chief critics.
Federal authorities have so far stayed out of Tigray’s election. Mr. Abiy said in a state television interview this week, “We are not going to lift our hands every time someone shouts asking to affirm their existence.”
But Mr. Abiy also warned regional officials that “they will not have legitimacy” if they don’t participate in the next national elections.
The government also took steps to limit media coverage of the Tigray elections. Authorities on Monday barred some local and foreign reporters from traveling to the region, confiscating their documents, laptops and phones at the airport.
Starting at midnight on the eve of the election, long lines of people — from hardened war veterans to young student activists — began lining up in Tigray for their chance to vote, voters and observers said in telephone interviews. Organizers marked the floors with chalk, so that voters could stand at a distance from one other. Health workers in white overalls sprayed voters with disinfectant. In many parts of the region, authorities said nearly 100 percent of registered voters had cast their ballot hours before polling stations closed.
Some 2.7 million voters were expected to vote in 2,672 polling stations across the region, though the turnout numbers have not yet been announced. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or the T.P.L.F., the once-dominant party in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, was expected to win the majority of the 190 seats.
Authorities expect to announce the final results on Friday.
Girmay Berhe, leader of the Tigray Independence Party, said the relationship between the region and the federal government was one of “hostility.” He anticipated that Mr. Abiy’s administration might retaliate by cutting budgetary allocations or stopping investment in the region.
He said that given the possibility of his party gaining seats in the Tigray regional parliament, there was a chance that Tigray would “unilaterally” declare independence.
Some voters and experts, however, disagree.
In Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region, Salamlak Habtom, 26, said she voted in the elections because she felt that the government’s cancellation of the general elections was “totally wrong.”
But that didn’t mean that Tigray should leave Ethiopia. “For me Tigray is the cornerstone of Ethiopian nationalism,” Ms. Salamlak said. “With all the history and religion there is, I don’t think there is anyone more Ethiopian than us.”
Mr. Asnake, of Addis Ababa University, said that claims the Tigray region will declare independence are “exaggerated.”
“The Tigray region is creating narratives to strengthen whatever claims they have in national politics,” Mr. Asnake said.
Mehari Taddele Maru a professor of governance and geopolitics at the European University Institute, said that if Mr. Abiy is to succeed, he should engage in “inclusive dialogue” on “shared interests and aspirations” with the political elite across the country.
Simon Marks reported from Addis Ababa and Abdi Latif Dahir from Nairobi, Kenya.