Friday, July 22, 2005

'Feeling is Not Good' After Ethiopia Vote

USATODAY.com -- Regulars at the Crocodile, a coffeehouse in the Ethiopian capital, pored over copies of an independent newspaper called Nestanet, which means "freedom" in the local Amharic language.

"Everyone is waiting for the result of the election," said Kebede Lema, as he sipped bitter coffee. "The feeling is not good."

A tense calm has fallen over the city since police shot dead 36 political protesters on June 8. The fatalities came after demonstrations to protest what opposition parties say was vote rigging in parliamentary elections May 15.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's governing party claims it won the poll. Two months after the vote, the final tally hasn't been published. Results released July 8 for more than half the seats showed the ruling party and opposition in a virtual tie. The National Electoral Board said Tuesday that it would announce the full results Friday.

For now, the coffee drinkers wonder whether there is democracy here or if the government has erected a facade intended to divert international attention from the leadership's hold on power.

Some expect more violence when the results are released. "The opposition parties may not accept the result, if they believe the appeals process has been unfair or unjust," said Asrad Michael, who sat on a plastic chair outside the coffee shop. "People here are beginning to ask questions, and they will demonstrate again if they want to."

International support

It is 14 years since Meles and his rebel army ended the 17-year reign of Mengistu Haile Mariam's Soviet-backed junta. Afterward, the international community — including the United States — was quick to offer aid and liken Meles to African leaders such as Paul Kagame in Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda. Both emphasized democratic change and good governance.

Ethiopia held its first multiparty elections in 1995. Progress was rewarded by warmer relations with the United States, says David Shinn, U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 1996 to 1999.

Last year, British Prime Minister Tony Blair appointed Meles to his Commission for Africa, a panel tasked with drafting a blueprint to lift the entire continent out of poverty. Also on the panel: campaigners on behalf of Africa such as Bob Geldof, orchestrator of the Live Aid and Live 8 benefit concerts.

Ethiopia's elections in May, at first, seemed to enhance the country's image as a flourishing democracy. The Carter Center and the European Union hailed the progress made there.

Provisional results gave the opposition parties, which shared a platform that promoted economic liberalization, sweeping gains. They claimed almost 200 out of the 524 contested seats. They won 12 seats in 2000.

Beyene Petros, first vice chairman of the opposition United Ethiopian Democratic Forces, says despite these gains, the election was not fair. He claims there was vote rigging at rural polling stations, beyond the gaze of international observers.

"The ruling party prevented our poll watchers from sitting in the polling stations. It meant they could use force on opposition supporters, arrest them and so on," he says.

He says members of his party reported that ballot boxes were destroyed, pre-marked papers were distributed and counts were changed by officials of Meles' Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.

Carter Center monitors visited 36 disputed constituencies. A center statement confirmed some allegations of voter intimidation and improper transport of ballot boxes. The center was waiting for Ethiopia to conclude its investigation before releasing its report.

Opposition parties lodged complaints in 299 of the 524 contested constituencies. The Electoral Board investigated 139 of those complaints.

Violent protests

On June 6, students protested, hurling stones at police. Hundreds were arrested. The clashes brought more people onto the streets of Addis Ababa. Two days later, more than 30 people were killed when police fired on demonstrators. The shootings, Beyene says, showed the government didn't have a real commitment to democracy. He says Western leaders have been taken in by a slick public relations campaign to secure aid and cement Ethiopia's position as a key regional ally in the war on terror. "They want to present a picture of democracy, but at the same time, they don't want to give anything away," he says.

The government claims the protesters who were killed planned to storm government buildings. Lethal force was needed to prevent the country sliding into anarchy, Information Minister Bereket Simon says. He says 3,000 people were arrested. "This unfortunate incident took place, which we all regret. But I don't think this must be the yardstick by which our move to democracy is measured," he says. "We have come a long way in 14 years and created an irreversible process of democratization."

After the protests, the two main opposition groups signed a deal with the government to resolve election disputes peacefully. Tuesday, opposition leaders complained that the government impeded a fair review of their complaints. "The investigation process was a complete failure," Behanu Nega of the main opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy told reporters.

"The investigations have been following proper procedures, and we are not biased in favor of any political group," Electoral Board spokesman Getahun Amogne said.

Shinn, an adjunct professor at George Washington University in Washington, says it's unclear whether Meles is truly a progressive African leader. "This is the key question, and the answer is not yet in," he says. He says optimism in the first days after the election has been undermined by the heavy-handed policing of protests. The violence was "a very significant setback to the whole democratic process."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Meles to express her concern over the violence. The British government has withheld a $36 million aid package to protest the unrest.

"It is time that Westerners revised their point of view," says Arafat Abdulaziz, a student at Addis Ababa University. "This government has two faces: one for people here and one for people internationally."

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