At Elections on May 15th, Ethiopians were offered a real choice. Opposition parties fielded more candidates than ever before. The state broadcaster aired proper political debates. Foreign observers were welcomed. A week before the vote, opposition supporters-maybe more than a million-were allowed to march in Addis Ababa, the capital.
It was the freest election ever held in Ethiopia, though that is not saying much. In the past 3,000 years, the country has spawned great civilisations, but nothing resembling a modern democracy. Only 14 years ago, it was under the grip of a Marxist regime, the Derg, whose leaders thought mass starvation a useful tool both for crushing rebellious tribes and for easing overpopulation.
Since the Derg fell in 1991, Ethiopia has become a less harsh and more open society. Western donors see it as a test case for the argument, advanced by Britain and others in the run-up to the G8 summit in July, that a doubling of aid could help lift Africa out of poverty. The theory is that aid yields the best results if directed at moderately well-governed countries with lots of poor inhabitants. With 71m people, Ethiopia is by far the most populous country in the bottom tenth of the UN's Human Development Index, a composite measure of poverty, ill health and basic education. (In 2004, it was ranked 170th out of 177.)
Under Meles Zenawi, who toppled the Derg and now rules pragmatically as prime minister, Ethiopia is doing better. Tony Blair, Britain's prime minister, thinks so highly of Mr Zenawi that he asked him to sit on his Commission for Africa. Donors believe that with more help (Ethiopia already gets $1 billion a year, excluding food aid), the country could take off.
With aid, however, comes scrutiny. Donors prefer their clients to be democratic, and Ethiopia is imperfectly so. The ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), enjoys vast powers of patronage. The state owns all the land in Ethiopia. Peasants are therefore reluctant to upset anyone in a position of power for fear of being evicted, and some 85% of Ethiopians are peasants.
One of two newly formed opposition groups, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), offered a liberal alternative: campaigning, among other things, for land to be privatised. It did well in cities, winning all 23 seats in Addis Ababa, but has found it harder to sway rural voters.
Lalibela, a small town two days' drive north of Addis, saw a typical campaign. The first opposition candidate in the area, Destaw Kassie Gobezie, canvassed on foot because he had no car. With some polling stations as far as 95km (60 miles) away, however, he could not reach everyone. An old salt-seller in Lalibela's market told The Economist that he did not know who the candidates were. He said he would ask for advice at the polling station.
The opposition complained of harassment and vote-buying, particularly in the countryside. Human Rights Watch (HRW), a pressure group, says that repression and intimidation in Oromia, the country's largest region, rendered the vote there a "hollow exercise". HRW claims that torture and arbitrary arrests, aimed at crushing a local revolt, have also silenced peaceful dissent. Teachers have been made to spy on students, local officials have been made to spy on peasants and suspected "troublemakers" have been prevented from receiving public services, such as medicine. The minister of information dismisses such allegations as smears.
Vote-counting is expected to continue until June 8th, but the ruling coalition was confident enough of having swept rural areas to declare victory on May 16th. Two days later, the CUD retorted that on the contrary, it was on course for a famous victory. The prime minister has banned rallies in the capital for a month.
Which side is really more popular is hard to say. The EPRDF gets credit for having ousted the Derg, and for delivering schools, roads, water and electricity to many over the past decade. But the lack of secure property rights has hindered the development of larger, more productive farms. A year of poor rains still translates into millions of people needing food aid and a contraction of the whole economy. Irrigation is still rare, and the proportion of Ethiopians living in absolute poverty has fallen only slightly-from 45.5% in 1996 to 44.2% in 2000, according to the IMF. Over the past two years, however, the rains have been good and the economy has rebounded, growing by over 11% last year.
Sandwiched between warring Sudan and disintegrating Somalia, Ethiopia looks admirably stable. But its border dispute with Eritrea, which exploded into a disastrous war in the late 1990s, remains unresolved. Although the border was delineated by a UN commission in 2002, it remains unmarked, and both countries continue to threaten each other. This imposes a huge cost in defence spending and lost trade.
Ethiopia is an ethnic and religious mosaic, with 80 languages and a history of local revolts. To ease tensions, the government has opted for a decentralised federal system, with nine regions drawn along ethnic lines, and has even included the right to secede in the constitution. The opposition, however, argues that this actually aggravates divisions.
Many also believe, resentfully, that the government is dominated by Mr Zenawi's ethnic group, the Tigrayans, who spearheaded the revolt against the Derg. During the campaign, the prime minister likened the opposition's thinking to that of the Interahamwe, the militia that carried out the Rwandan genocide of 1994. That is ridiculous, but it suggests that Ethiopia's stability cannot be taken for granted. The love affair between western donors and their latest darling could yet prove stormy.