Ethnic violence and mounting rancour among political elites could force Ethiopia to postpone the landmark elections set for May, according to a report released Monday by conflict analysis and prevention group ICG.
If tensions continue to rise, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed "may have to seek an election delay", the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned.
"A divisive and bloody campaign, with candidates making openly ethnic-based appeals for votes, could tip the country over the edge," it said.
Following several years of anti-government protests, Abiy was appointed prime minister in April 2018 by the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, which came to power in the early 1990s.
Though his ambitious reform agenda earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, his tenure has been marred by ethnic clashes that displaced nearly three million people last year.
The latest flare-up occurred in October, when a prominent activist from the Oromo ethnic group accused security forces of trying to orchestrate an attack against him, spurring protests and violence that left more than 80 people dead.
Despite security concerns, Abiy is keen to move ahead with elections in May to stave off challenges to his legitimacy and secure a mandate for his agenda, which includes dramatically reshaping one of Africa's fastest-growing economies.
But there are multiple flashpoints that could derail that timeline, ICG said in its report.
These include discord in Abiy's home region of Oromia highlighted by the October violence; hostility between Abiy's administration and the once-dominant Tigray People's Liberation Front; and disputes over land between the Amhara and Tigray regions.
Abiy also faces rising demands for more autonomy from ethnic groups in Ethiopia's diverse southern region.
The Sidama ethnic group voted to form their own regional state in a referendum last month, and other groups in the south would like to follow suit.
Another challenge stems from Abiy's decision to transform the EPRDF coalition into a single political party, dubbed the Ethiopian Prosperity Party.
Analysts say Abiy hopes the merger, approved last month, will make EPRDF members more competitive at the ballot box as well as curtail rising ethno-nationalism.
But the move has been rejected by the TPLF and criticised by Defence Minister Lemma Megersa, a key Abiy ally, and the ICG report says it risks further aggravating ethnic tensions and destabilising the political landscape ahead of elections.
There is no constitutional provision for pushing elections past the May deadline, and any move to do so would be controversial, especially if it is announced at the last minute.
"The closer we get to elections, the more people will be invested in them and expectant," said ICG senior analyst William Davison.
"Therefore, if there is going to be an agreement to delay, the sooner the better. The closer you get to the polls, the more tricky such a process would be.
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