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Friday, May 13, 2005

Campaigning Wraps Up in Ethiopia

Campaigning in Ethiopia's parliamentary elections officially ended on Friday ahead of a weekend vote that will be a critical test of freedom and democracy in one of the United States's closest allies in Africa.

For the first time, international observers will monitor the balloting, which marks the end of a race that has tested the tolerance of a sometimes authoritarian regime that has ruled the Horn of Africa nation since 1991.

Almost everyone in the country considers Sunday's election a test of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's pledge to introduce greater democracy in the country of 70-million.

The election campaign -- the third in Ethiopia's 3 000-year history -- has generally been peaceful and opposition parties have had unprecedented access to the media and have staged massive rallies in the capital, Addis Ababa.

Opposition parties have complained about the fairness of the process, but European Union election observers and diplomats have praised the elections for their openness compared with the 2000 vote, when the ruling coalition took 534 of 547 seats in the Lower House of Parliament.

"This is the election where we have had the highest interest both on behalf of the electorate and on the part of international observers; it's been the longest electoral campaign in this country," Zenawi said.

"For me, it is the maturation of the emerging democracy we have in this country."

But there have been problems, and both the ruling coalition and opposition groups have filed complaints, said National Electoral Board chairperson Kemal Bedri. He said no action has been taken against the parties because all the incidents appeared to be the acts of individuals.

In a confidential report, EU election observers said they witnessed ruling-party supporters using violence to break up opposition rallies and intimidate voters. Opposition parties have accused ruling-party supporters of killing eight people and police of jailing opposition organisers.

"It is far away from the free and fair elections the government promised," said Berhanu Nega, vice-chairperson of the main opposition group, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy. "They thought they would open it a little bit and maybe they would increase the seats of the opposition ... and it would give them legitimate international recognition."

Nega said he now believes the opposition has a real chance of winning control of Parliament, and the government is responding by reneging on its promise of a fair election.

Mail & Guardian

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