Ethiopia polls marred by fraud allegations

Ethiopia`s opposition accused PM Meles Zenawi`s ruling coalition.

Addis Ababa: Ethiopia`s opposition accused Prime Minister Meles Zenawi`s ruling coalition of rigging the country`s election on Sunday, though no major violence was reported in sub-Saharan Africa`s second most populous country.

The European Union`s observation mission chief Thijs Berman praised the election as "peaceful and calm" and the national election commission said it had no evidence of fraud but opposition leaders in several regions cried foul.

"It doesn`t look like an election, even by African standards," said Merara Gudina, a top leader of the opposition coalition Medrek, whose figurehead Birtukan Mideksa, 36, is serving a life jail sentence.

Vote counting was to be finished on Sunday but provisional national results are only to be revealed on Tuesday and final results are not expected for another month, election commission vice chairman Adissu Guebre Egziaber said.

The last polls in 2005 saw the opposition record its best ever showing but led to violence that left 200 dead and triggered a government crackdown that left its main challengers jailed, exiled or greatly weakened.

With the country`s most charismatic opposition figure in prison and what rights groups have criticised as shrinking political freedom during the campaign, Meles seems guaranteed to keep his job.

Merara cited several cases of suspected fraud in the southern opposition stronghold of Oromiya, particularly in the town of Ambo.

"There is no law that forces us to accept any result," he said, adding he had reports of ballot boxes being stuffed.

In Meles` hometown of Adwa, an former supporter of the premier who is now running for the opposition, complained of a litany of irregularities.

Aregash Adana told AFP many voters were not allowed to cast their ballot in secrecy, that opposition campaign posters were torn down overnight and that party observers were barred from monitoring polling.

"It is a very undemocratic process, the general atmosphere is not conducive... I think there will be manipulations," she said.

The European Union deployed some 160 observers and the African Union 60 for the polls during which 32 million registered voters were called to elect the 547-strong lower House of Representatives and regional councillors, who will elect the upper chamber of parliament.

Another senior opposition leader spoke of suspected fraud by the ruling EPRDF coalition in other parts of the country.

Human Rights Watch charged during the campaign earlier this year that the government was "waging a coordinated and sustained attack on political opponents, journalists, and rights activists."

Birtukan Mideksa emerged from the 2005 electoral chaos as Ethiopia`s most inspirational opposition figure. She has been dubbed "the Ethiopian Aung San Suu Kyi", in reference to Myanmar`s detained pro-democracy activist.

Observers say that the rest of the opposition, despite joining forces under the Medrek umbrella, remains weak and divided and has not recovered from the repression that followed the 2005 election.

While opposition candidates vented their anger, opposition supporters even in rebellious Oromiya seemed unprepared to take protests to the streets in a repeat of the 2005 events.

"I don`t think there ever will be any incident on the scale of 2005. People get tired of bickering. I think everyone wants to enjoy living peacefully now, no matter what they think of the government," said one Medrek voter in his fifties.

Despite his poor rights record, Meles is steering ambitious development programmes and rapid economic growth that earn him solid support at home and abroad.

Foreign criticism of the government has been more muted as Meles -- whose country borders Eritrea and Somalia -- remains a key US and Western ally in the fight against Islamic extremism.

"It`s a great thing if there are several opposition parties, but when it comes to the long-term stability of the country and the region, Meles is still your best bet," one diplomat in the Ethiopian capital said.

Bureau Report

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