* PM Meles says has reduced poverty
* Dismisses opposition claims of fraud
* Says “hope in the air now”
By Barry Malone
ADWA, Ethiopia, May 23 (Reuters) – Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said he expects to be returned to power in national elections on Sunday and rejected accusations that the first vote since a violent 2005 poll would be a fraud.
“I think so,” Meles said when asked if his ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) would win. “That appears to be the opinion of almost everyone I know.”
Speaking to Reuters as he flew back to the capital Addis Ababa after voting in his hometown of Adwa, Meles, 55, who has been in power for almost 20 years, said his party’s development record would ensure victory.
“We have built tens of thousands of schools, clinics and rural roads,” Meles said, who has a magazine story about dam construction open on the table in front of him.
“And that has transformed the livelihoods of the bulk of our population. In the urban areas we have focused on infrastructure roads, telecommunications, power.”
“I think there is hope in the air now,” Meles, outfitted in a baseball cap and leather jacket, added.
In 2005, riots broke out in Addis Ababa when the opposition said the EPRDF had fixed its victory. Security forces killed 193 protesters and seven policemen died in trouble that blackened the name of one of the world’s biggest aid recipients.
Ethiopia is still one of the world’s poorest countries, with nearly 10 percent of the population relying on emergency food aid last year. But the government has posted healthy economic growth figures, although the opposition claims they are inflated.
“Imagine a government which has delivered double-digit growth rates for over seven years losing an election anywhere on earth. It is unheard of for such a phenomenon to happen,” he said.
HOPES ALL WORTH IT
Meles took power in 1991 when his Tigrayan Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (TPLF) rebels were chiefly responsible for ousting a vicious communist regime that killed hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians in a 17-year rule.
The biggest challenge to the former rebel this time comes from eight-party coalition Medrek who, with few policies, are united by a desire to unseat Meles.
He also, for the first time, faces an opponent in his Tigray stronghold. Former TPLF members who fought with the famously stubborn Meles over economic policy and how to deal with rival Eritrea formed their own party.
But there was little evidence of opposition in the small town where he was born as his convoy of cars, packed with heavily armed bodyguards, swept through the dusty streets, some of which were strewn with grass as a traditional welcome.
“You are the winner, our country is for you,” crowds of people sang, before swamping a beaming Meles outside the polling station. The crowds could still be heard singing outside as he disappeared behind a curtain to cast his vote.
Medrek admits it has little chance of winning but says that is because the EPRDF has tightened its grip on power since 2005, intimidates and jails its critics, and uses power at a local level to bribe people and scare people into voting for it.
Meles rejected the claims, saying those tactics would not work.
“When push comes to shove people vote alone,” he said. Nobody can be sure as to how people are going to vote when they are in the voting booth. So none of these accusations are going to have a substantive impact on the outcome.”
With most analysts agreeing his victory is assured, Meles said he would make improving Ethiopia’s energy supply and expanding its industries his priority for the next five years — after which he said he would retire.
He ruled out privatising banking and telecommunications in the country of 80 million people, despite sustained pressure from Western donors to do so. He said his country would continue to be a close U.S. ally for strategic reasons.
A win would put Meles on the road to almost 25 years in power — something he said he never could have dreamed of when he was a rebel hiding in the bush.
“That was clearly not what I expected,” he said. “It’s happened. I dont regret it but I just hope that, at the end of it all, it will have been worth it.
(Editing by David Clarke and Michael Roddy)