Ethiopia’s ruling party celebrates victory

An Ethiopians man waiting to cast his vote kisses a cross
An Ethiopians man waiting to cast his vote Sunday, May 23, 2010 at a poling station in Dukem, Ethiopia, 40 km south of Addis Ababa, kisses a cross held by a priest.

By Anita Powell, Associated Press Writer | May 25, 2010

Ethiopia’s ruling party called a rally in the capital Tuesday to celebrate its victory in national elections, but a U.S. rights group claimed the weekend ballot was corrupted by irregularities.

Hundreds of blue-uniformed federal police stood guard as supporters of the ruling party gathered in the city’s central parade grounds. Workers had constructed a platform overlooking the grounds, and were installing a glass box — possibly made of bulletproof glass for an important person. It was not known whether Prime Minister Meles Zenawi would speak at the rally.

The European Union mission said it would release a report on the election Tuesday. The EU mission said it that, while Sunday’s vote had been peaceful, it had received reports of irregularities, both of a technical nature and from opposition candidates.

The rally was called as provisional returns showed a victory for the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and its allies. The tallies showed the EPRDF and its allies ahead in the nine regions that have reported results, out of a total of 11.

“As far as the provisional result is concerned, the EPRDF has winned,” board chairman Merga Bekana said Monday.

Final results will be announced in late June, officials have said.

Sunday’s vote had been closely watched by international observers after the contentious 2005 election, in which the opposition won an unprecedented number of parliamentary seats only to endure police crackdowns and the killing of 193 demonstrators after the votes were counted.

Neither opposition leaders nor ruling party officials could be reached immediately for comment on the results announced Monday. The opposition had complained previously of vote-rigging and intimidation on election day.

The election board chairman also said the ruling party had won 20 of the capital’s 23 parliamentary seats, with only two left to report results in Addis Ababa. There are 546 assembly seats in all.

New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized Sunday’s vote as corrupted by pre-election irregularities, including telling voters they could lose food assistance, public-sector jobs, loans and educational opportunities if they voted against the ruling party.

“Behind an orderly facade, the government pressured, intimidated and threatened Ethiopian voters,” said Rona Peligal, acting Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Whatever the results, the most salient feature of this election was the months of repression preceding it.”

Merga read out the results in English, barely pausing as he rattled off party acronyms and large figures, in a televised news conference.

“The process is very transparent, free, fair and peaceful,” he said, noting the results were also available on the election board’s website. Few people in Ethiopia have computers or TV sets.

Ethiopian election officials said they witnessed no irregularities, and government spokesman Bereket Simon said the election was free and fair.

“It is sad to hear that while the election officials have said Ethiopians voted in a democratic way, Human Rights Watch, which has nothing to do with the election observation, is declaring our election fraudulent,” he said. “The people of Ethiopia have voted, and no one is going to take their vote away from them.”

Merga refused to say how many votes the ruling party received across the board, but an Associated Press calculation shows the ruling party won at least 6.7 million votes in the nine regions reporting. Merga said more than 90 percent of the 32 million registered voters — some 29 million people — cast ballots nationwide.

Analysts had predicted an easy win for the ruling party, led by Meles, a U.S. ally now poised to get five more years of power after he seized control in a 1991 coup.

Since the violent elections in 2005, the opposition and some analysts say the government has systematically stifled the competition while limiting the media and restricting aid groups from working on human rights issues.

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 and provides billions of dollars in foreign aid. Both countries want to curb Islamist extremism in Somalia, Ethiopia’s unstable neighbor to the east.