Ethiopians voted today in the Horn of Africa nation’s first national elections since 2005 after a campaign marred by allegations of intimidation by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling party.
About 31.9 million registered voters were eligible to cast ballots to elect 547 members of parliament and representatives to regional councils. A former Marxist guerrilla leader who has ruled Africa’s second-most populous nation since 1991, Meles, 55, is expected to win re-election easily, according to human rights groups and analysts.
Thijs Berman, chief of the European Union’s election observation mission, estimated more than 70 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. Berman said in an interview that, while the day was peaceful, the EU mission is investigating opposition complaints about irregularities.
Meles’s Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has used a combination of harassment and arrests and withholding food aid and jobs to thwart the opposition Medrek alliance, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a March 24 report entitled “One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure.”
The “EPRDF is just set to rig this election,” Medrek Chairman Beyene Petros told reporters on May 20 in Addis Ababa, the capital. Medrek says that three of its activists have been murdered during the campaign and that hundreds more have been beaten and jailed on trumped-up charges.
Under Meles, Ethiopia, Africa’s top coffee producer, has pursued an economic model that mixes a large state role with foreign investment in roads, dams and power. The government controls the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corp., a state-run monopoly, and owns all the land, while companies owned by the state or the ruling party dominate banking and trucking. Almost a sixth of its 85 million people depend on food aid.
“I want things to improve, I want change,” said Dereje Mekonnen, 35, a carpenter in Addis Ababa who spoke outside of a polling station and said he voted for Medrek. “I don’t have confidence in the process, but at least it’s something.”
Seeye Abreha, a former defense minister under Meles who has joined the Medrek opposition, said that a group of about 12 of his party’s electoral observers were detained for several hours without charge by police yesterday in the northern Tigray region.
Firing in the Air
In a separate incident, he said police fired in the air to break up a meeting of opposition poll observers. Seeye also said local officials were threatening to withhold U.S. food aid from farmers who voted for the opposition, and telling them that the ruling party had placed cameras in voting booths to see how they voted.
“They are employing all forms of intimidation,” he said in a phone interview today from Tigray.
Mohammed Abdurahman, a spokesman for the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia, said he was unaware of the complaints. “Everything is going smoothly,” he said in a phone interview today in Addis Ababa.
Bereket Simon, the government’s minister of communication affairs and a senior ruling party official, denied opposition complaints of harassment including Seeye’s allegations.
“These are people who are crying wolf every time because the whole objective has been to discredit the process,” he said today in a phone interview in Addis Ababa.
A Key Ally
Meles has been a key ally in the fight against Islamic militants in neighboring Somalia.
Development aid to Ethiopia from the U.S., U.K., the World Bank and other donors rose to $3.3 billion in 2008 from $1.9 billion in 2005, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The government says economic growth in Ethiopia of more than 7 percent annually over the past five years is the main reason it will win re-election.
Ruling party campaign posters featured candidate photos next to drawings of gleaming skyscrapers and superhighways.
The European Union has sent a 160-member monitoring mission to observe the vote led by Thijs Berman, a Dutch member of the European parliament.
Medrek, a coalition that includes jailed opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa’s Unity for Democracy and Justice party and a number of ethnic-based parties, is divided on how it would govern the country if elected, David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 1996-1999, said in a May 11 phone interview.
A Disparate Group
“They are a disparate group,” he said. “It’s the kind of grouping that can try to hang together to defeat the EPRDF, and if they don’t do that they’ll go their separate ways.”
In 2005, EU monitors were blocked from observing ballot counting by Ethiopian officials after early results showed the opposition winning all 23 parliamentary seats in Addis Ababa, Ana Maria Gomes, the head of the 2005 EU observation mission, said in a May 11 phone interview.
Official results released after the elections showed the ruling party and its allies winning more than 360 seats in the 547-member parliament.
At least 193 people were killed in Addis Ababa by security forces loyal to Meles in unrest following the poll. Birtukan and more than 120 opposition leaders, democracy activists and journalists were jailed and later charged with treason or related crimes.
They were released under a pardon by Meles in 2007. Birtukan was re-arrested in December 2008 and jailed under a life sentence after saying her pardon had been part of a political deal.