Ethiopia opposition bloc claims voter intimidation

Ethiopian Federal Police carry foam mats as they ride through Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Ethiopian Federal Police carry foam mats as they ride through Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Friday May 21, 2010. Voters have been intimidated and opposition candidates harassed ahead of Ethiopia's national elections on Sunday May 23, 2010, opposition members say, a vote likely to propel the current prime minister, a U.S. ally into a second decade of power. Opposition leaders say they worry this year's election may turn into a repeat of 2005's contentious poll which was capped by the arrest of about 100 opposition politicians and activists who challenged the results. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

By ANITA POWELL
Associated Press Writer
Ethiopia’s largest opposition bloc said they have evidence of voter intimidation and vote-rigging that may lead them to reject the results of Sunday’s national election.

The vote is being closely watched by international observers and by critics who say the U.S.-allied ruling party has harassed voters and challengers.

Opposition members and the ruling party’s critics say the poll will likely lead to a new decade of power for Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who seized control of the Horn of Africa country in a 1991 coup. Opposition leaders say they worry the election may turn into a repeat of the contentious poll in 2005, when about 100 opposition politicians and activists who challenged the results were arrested.

The largest opposition bloc, Medrek, complained of intimidation soon after Sunday’s vote began.

Medrek spokesman Negasso Gidada said with just three hours into voting, some of his party’s observers have been blocked and arrested in northern Ethiopia, and others have been intimidated in southern Ethiopia.

Negasso said his party also believes voting booths are not private and that Medrek has complained to election officials.

“We think we may not accept the results,” Negasso said.

Government spokesman Bereket Simon, however, said he was not aware of not any election irregularities or problems and when told by The Associated Press of the opposition claims, he said “this is simply, simply an orchestrated lie.

“If they reject the result before it’s declared, it means they know how they’ve been accepted,” he said “They know they have lost it squarely.”

Negasso said a group of his party’s election observers were arrested Saturday in Tigray. He also said that his party’s observers are being intimidated in Oromia and Amhara regions, and that voter cards are being denied to eligible opposition voters. He also said that the plastic sheets separating election booths in the capital are not private enough and that voters can speak to each other and pass notes under the barriers.

“In many places the secret ballot is being violated. This is very serious,” Negasso said.

Meles’ Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front denies it repressed its opponents and says candidates have been able to campaign freely. But opposition members say they have been harassed and two of their campaigners have been killed under mysterious circumstances.

The opposition and some analysts also say the government has systematically stifled the competition since 2005 and ensured an uneventful election by enacting restrictive laws that restrict aid groups from working on human rights issues and hinder the media.

While the ruling party and election officials have said the election would be free and fair, Ethiopia is frequently criticized for its human rights record, including by the U.S. State Department, which in a March report cited reports of “unlawful killings, torture, beating, abuse and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, often acting with evident impunity.”

Still, the U.S. considers Ethiopia an ally. Both countries want to curb Islamist extremism in Somalia, Ethiopia’s unstable neighbor to the east. Ethiopia is reliant on billions of dollars of foreign aid, most of it from the U.S.

Meles’ rule has weathered many challenges: droughts, tensions over a disputed border with Eritrea and rebel movements around the country. The Ethiopian army also made an incursion into neighboring Somalia in late 2006 to support the weak U.N.-backed Somali government in its fight against Islamist insurgents before withdrawing last year.

The ruling party has based its campaign on promises of economic growth, agricultural development and improvements in health and education.

At a polling station in central Addis Ababa, dozens of voters queued at dawn to vote before polls opened at 6 a.m. (0300 GMT; 11 p.m. EDT Saturday).

Kinde Moges, a 35-year-old private security guard, said he came early to vote before starting work.

“The party I voted for is my choice because I know its past experience and its future hopes,” he said, indicating he voted for the ruling party. He said he thought the party he chose would help his three children get a good education and jobs, he said, to “support me in my old age.”

Polling stations in the center of the capital appeared calm and orderly, a marked contrast to the long lines and excited voters in the 2005 election. That year, a then-energetic opposition won an unprecedented number of parliamentary seats in this country of 85 million, only to endure police crackdowns and the killing of 193 demonstrators after the votes were counted.

The government has said observers from the European Union and the African Union can monitor the vote along with 40,000 local observers.

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Associated Press writer Samson Haileyesus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia contributed to this report.