By Barry Malone and David Clarke
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Reuters) – Ethiopians vote on Sunday in national elections that are expected to return long-serving Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to power in the first ballot since a disputed poll in 2005 turned violent.
The opposition admits it has little chance of victory but says that is because the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has tightened its grip on power since then and routinely intimidates and jails its critics.
In 2005, riots broke out in the capital Addis Ababa when the EPRDF was declared winner. Security forces killed 193 protestors and seven policemen also died in trouble that tarnished the reputation of one of the world’s biggest aid recipients.
The EPRDF says it has since won popularity during a period of sustained economic growth by building roads, hydropower dams and electrifying villages in a country where nearly 10 percent of the population needed emergency food aid last year.
While there has been some violence in the two regions of Oromia and Tigray, the capital has been calm before polling.
“It is very good because the election seems to be fair. There is no violence, nobody is fighting,” said Mekonen Dejene, a chauffeur who works in the capital.
BEREFT OF POLICIES
Meles became leader of Ethiopia in 1991 when a rebel group led by him ousted a communist regime that killed hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians in a 17-year rule.
The biggest challenge comes from the eight-party coalition Medrek — or the Forum — that is united chiefly by its desire to unseat Meles and has put forward few actual policies.
Medrek is running 421 candidates for the 547-seat federal parliament, not as high as the EPRDF’s 521, but enough to form a clear majority should they pull off a shock win.
The next biggest opposition parties, the All Ethiopian Unity Organization and the Ethiopian Democratic Party are running 350 and 250 candidates respectively.
Western diplomats in Addis Ababa say they are anxious to see improvements in a secular country which is an ally in the fight against hardline Islamism in the region.
Outside the capital, both sides say members have died in politically motivated killings. Diplomats and staff of some foreign charities have been banned from leaving Addis Ababa without permission from authorities until after the poll.
In Tigray, the ruling party is facing a challenge from former members who fought with Meles over economic policy and how to deal with rival Eritrea.
The 55-year-old leader, who has represented Africa at international meetings, was lionized by the West in 1991. Then President Bill Clinton called him one of a “new generation” of leaders who would bring democracy to the continent.
But Meles has increasingly been criticized by rights groups who say he is becoming more autocratic and stifles dissent in the country of 80 million people.
Birtukan Mideksa, leader of one of the Medrek member parties and seen by analysts as a potential replacement for Meles, is in prison accused of violating the terms of a pardon that released her from a previous jail spell in 2007.
Polls opened around the country at 6 a.m. (12 a.m. EDT) and close at 6pm. Some 32 million Ethiopians, 90 percent of eligible voters, will make their choices at more than 43,000 polling stations across the huge nation.