Ethiopia will postpone general elections that were scheduled for the end of August because of the coronavirus outbreak, the first African country to suspend a nationwide vote due to the pandemic.

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Delays to the delivery of equipment and the amount of work that would need to be completed amid virus restrictions mean Africa’s second-most populous country won’t be able to vote at that time, the Ethiopian electoral board said Tuesday. A new schedule will be announced “after the risk of the virus has been resolved,” it said.

The highly anticipated election is seen as a test of the popularity of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who rose to power almost two years ago following the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn. The 43-year-old swiftly initiated widespread economic reforms and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work toward ending a conflict with neighboring Eritrea, but his reign has also been beset by protests and ethnic violence.

“Although the circumstances of the delay are deeply worrying, it does offer an opportunity to reset Ethiopia’s troubled transition,” said William Davison, an analyst with International Crisis Group. “A start would be the ruling party discussing with opponents critical topics such as the conditions for a fair election.”

Controlling Spread

Ethiopia has 35 confirmed cases of the deadly coronavirus, which has swept around the world since originating in China at the turn of the year and triggered a global economic slump. The Horn of Africa country has closed its land borders and deployed security forces to control the spread, while Abiy has called on G-20 leaders to assist Africa with $150 billion in emergency funding and write off or convert debts of low-income countries.

Ethiopian Airlines Group has cut about 87 routes, though Africa’s biggest airline hasn’t joined continental rivals Kenya Airways Plc and South African Airways in grounding all international flights. The carrier had lost more than $190 million due to the impact of the coronavirus as of March 21, Abiy said at that time.

The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia asked its employees to work from home on March 16 after one of its technical advisers showed coronavirus symptoms, though the test results returned negative, the board said.

Ethiopia’s constitution permits the postponement of elections if the country declares a state of emergency. The vote was to be held on Aug. 29.

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