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ADDIS ABABA - Ethiopian opposition parties have accused Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of using the coronavirus pandemic to delay elections and stay in power beyond his constitutional mandate.
Abiy responded this week, accusing members of the opposition of using the COVID-19 pandemic to increase their own power and seed unrest in Africa's second most populous country.
The core issue is when Ethiopia will hold national elections. They were supposed to take place August 29, but have been delayed because of COVID-19. The government's mandate expires at the end of September.
Many opposition groups want to see a transitional government put in place after the mandate ends. That would grant them more decision-making power until the government holds elections and a state of emergency related to the pandemic has been lifted.
Ethiopia has 194 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with four deaths.
Making matters more complicated, the Tigray People's Liberation Front, which ran the country until Abiy came to power in 2018, has threatened to hold its own regional election in an attempt to consolidate its power at a regional level. The TPLF split from the national Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition last year when the coalition's three other parties merged to form the new Prosperity Party.
Yilkal Getnet, the leader of the opposition Ethiopian National Movement, spoke to VOA on a messaging app.
"Who's trying to grab power? It's the government, who dismissed all the opposition first and who wants to stay in power without any constitutional rights or the Ethiopian opposition political parties that are asking for dialogue [and] negotiation to have a common road map for our country," Getnet said. "Who is trying to grab power? It's the prime minister obviously."
On Tuesday, Ethiopia's House of People's Representatives, the parliament's lower chamber, approved a measure that would allow elections to be rescheduled after the pandemic is under control. However, that has left the opposition fuming because parliament is largely made up of members of the ruling Prosperity Party.
William Davison, the International Crisis Group's senior analyst for Ethiopia, told VOA that the coronavirus had left the opposition in a weaker position because its candidates are unable to campaign.
But, he explained, the government is also looking weak because the constitution does not explicitly provide ways to extend the government's term.
"This is an opportunity for the opposition, because the government is looking weak potentially, because it's on these kind of shaky, unprecedented constitutional legal grounds," Davison said. "Yes, there's a constitutional conundrum here. Yes, there's a creative legal solution needed. Ultimately, whether that legal solution leads to more peace or less peace is going to depend on the amount of political support it has."
Ethiopia is no stranger to political unrest. In October, 86 people died in two days of clashes after security forces allegedly tried to arrest Jawar Mohammed, one of Ethiopia's most prominent political activists, and his supporters came out to protest in several towns and cities.
In a televised speech Thursday, Abiy said calls for a transitional government were not legal and accused opposition parties of trying to grab power themselves. "Young people," he said, "should not die, mothers should not cry and houses should not be demolished just so politicians can take power."