By Barry Malone and David Clarke – ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (Reuters)
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi rejected opposition complaints of fraud in Sunday’s national election and said he expected to win on the strength of his economic record.
The European Union’s chief observer said voters had turned out in droves. While there were some allegations of irregularities that still needed to be evaluated, the parliamentary vote was “peaceful and calm.”
At the last vote in 2005, violence tore through Addis Ababa when Meles’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) declared it had won. Security forces killed 193 protesters and 7 policemen also died in violence that damaged the standing of one of the world’s biggest aid recipients.
A leader of the biggest opposition coalition Medrek, Gizachew Shiferaw, drew swift condemnation from election officials on Sunday after he said on state television the vote had not been democratic.
Speaking to Reuters as he flew to the capital Addis Ababa after casting his vote in the northern Tigray region, Meles said once people were in the polling booth they could vote as they pleased and intimidation would not affect the result.
“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 told Reuters, wearing a baseball cap and leather jacket.
The opposition felt it had been cheated out of victory five years ago but admits it has little chance of winning this time. It says this is because the EPRDF has tightened its grip on power and routinely intimidates and jails its critics.
“In the vast majority of polling stations, the elections were well organized,” the EU’s chief observer Thijs Berman said.
“With this very high turnout and this peaceful and calm election, Ethiopians have shown that they want full respect of their democratic rights, full respect of their electoral laws.”
He said that half way through the election day, turnout was already 70 percent.
“NOT FAIR AND FREE”
In the opposition stronghold of Oromia, the home of Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group with 27 million out of 80 million people, one party leader said there was absolutely no way the election could be considered fair.
“The whole game is controlled by the local administration,” Merera Gudina of the Oromo People’s Congress (OPC) told Reuters in the village of Kolba Lincha in Oromia.
“A lot of soldiers are around. It’s a sign of intimidation of the local population to vote for the government,” he said. “So this election is not, really, in any standard, even by African standards, it is not fair and free.”
Oromia, with the most constituencies, is seen by analysts as crucial to the election results in a country that is Washington’s main ally in the region and a growing destination for foreign direct investment.
The OPC is part of Medrek, or Forum, a coalition of eight parties that is united chiefly by its desire to unseat Meles and is seen as the greatest threat to the EPRDF.
Medrek is running 421 candidates for the 547-seat federal parliament, not as many as the EPRDF’s 521, but enough to form a clear majority should they pull off a shock win.
Meles became leader of Ethiopia in 1991 when an underdog rebel group led by him ousted a communist regime that killed hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians in a 17-year rule.
Western diplomats in Addis Ababa say they are anxious to see improvements in democracy in a secular country which is a key ally in the fight against hardline Islam in Somalia.
The father of three, who has represented Africa at international meetings, was courted as part of a “new generation” of Africa leaders by the West when he came to power.
But Meles has increasingly been targeted by rights groups and the media who say he is becoming more autocratic and stifles critics in the Horn of Africa nation.
(Additional by Njuwa Maina in Addis Ababa and Anna Little in Kolba Lincha; Editing by Ralph Boulton)