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Monday, May 16, 2005

Ethiopian Gov't Claims Election Victory

The government of Ethiopia said late Monday it had won a majority of seats in parliament, while acknowledging that the opposition had won in the capital, Addis Ababa.

About 90 percent of voters turned out for a parliamentary election seen as a test of Ethiopian leaders' commitment to democracy.

A brief statement broadcast on state radio and television did not say how many seats the governing party had won, or offer any other details about Sunday's vote. Attempts to contact the government spokesman were not successful.

Nationwide provisional results, however, were only expected Saturday, and final results would be announced June 8.

The main opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy — which came into the race with just three of 547 seats in parliament — had been expected to do well in its stronghold of Addis Ababa and other areas. Opposition leaders had claimed earlier Monday that, by their count, they had won at least 185 seats across the country, including 23 seats in the capital.

The ruling coalition that ended an oppressive dictatorship in 1991 was expected to move ahead as results come in from rural areas, where most of Ethiopia's 70 million people live.

As the count proceeded, opposition politicians were toning down earlier complaints of irregularities and sweeping threats to reject the results. The threats had led the prime minister to ban demonstrations and put the capital's police under his direct command.

At a news conference Monday, Berhanu Nega, vice chairman of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, said it was too early to decide whether to accept the results, though he said reports of wide abuses continued to come in.

International observers — allowed to monitor voting here for the first time — did not back the opposition's accusations of widespread problems.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who led 24 teams of observers from his human rights and development center, said that while there were minor problems in the run-up to the vote, the elections on Sunday were "as good as any we've seen."

"Great progress was made toward democracy," said Carter, praising the government's decision to hold regular political debates and granting the opposition free radio and television time, but said there were isolated cases of unlawful arrests and harassment. He said The Carter Center would issue a final report after the official results are released next month.

More than 500 foreign observers, including European Union teams, monitored the polls.

Hailu Shawel, the leader of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, scoffed at the observers for their upbeat assessment, calling them "a joke" and saying they had failed to do their duty. But the large turnout indicated most Ethiopians embraced the process as largely free and fair.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that, if substantiated, the opposition claims of election harassment and intimidation "would raise question about the government's commitment to real democratic reforms and the development of true democratic institutions.

"We are concerned about a decision by the government of Ethiopia to ban postelection demonstrations, and our embassy is monitoring that situation closely," Boucher said.

Kemal Bedri, chairman of the National Electoral Board, said 90 percent of the more than 25 million who had registered voted. Polling stations were overwhelmed. Those still in line after polls officially closed at 6 p.m. Sunday were allowed to vote, and polling in Addis Ababa lasted until 5 a.m. Monday.

Associated Press

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