Ethiopians flocked to the polls to vote in hotly contested general elections that are hoped will put the vast Horn of Africa nation known for grinding poverty and famine squarely on the path to democracy.
In the capital, thousands lined up before dawn to wait their turn at local polling stations that opened at 6:00 am (0300 GMT), which in Ethiopia's peculiar system of timekeeping is midnight to locals, and were to close 12 hours later at 6:00 pm (1500 GMT), or noon.
With massive early turnout in Addis Ababa expected to be mirrored at more than 30,000 polling stations around the country where 26 million people are registered to cast ballots, officials said voting could be finished well ahead of schedule.
"I was amazed to see people as early as 5:30 am waiting peacefully to decide their destiny and that of their country," Cissisay Wolde, the chief of one polling station in central Addis Ababa.
"So far we haven't seen anything problematic," he told AFP. "We may finish the voting earlier than is planned."
At about two dozen polling stations visited by AFP around the capital and its suburbs, voters and election officials reported few problems other than scattered logistical hitches that caused delays of 15 to 20 minutes in opening.
"I got here as early as I could and I am very happy to vote, I know where to cast my vote and for who," said voter Messine Teddla, clutching his registration card outside an Addis Ababa polling station.
"We have been here since 5 am but there were people here ahead of us," said Abebe Amare, a poll monitor with a local women's association. "They seem to be quiet and calm and things seem to be well prepared."
Voters are choosing between Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has been in power for 14 years, and scores of smaller parties, including those in two main opposition coalitions.
Many appeared unconcerned by last-minute opposition threats not to accept the results of the contest, the country's third since the 1991 ouster of a Soviet-backed dictatorship, second since the advent of multi-party politics and first with invited international observers.
Land ownership, food security, taxes and unemployment were the main bones of contention in the ethnically diverse republic although analysts say there is little real distinction between the rivals.