afrol News, 24 May - This weekend's elections in Ethiopia are praised for being "calm" and well organised, but few believe they have been truly free and fair. The ruling party of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is generally expected to win.
Ethiopians, in particular the ruling party, have the last elections in 2005 strongly in mind. Opposition claims of fraud and manipulations led to riots killing almost 200 people and political polarisation. This time, Prime Minister Meles had prepared the ground to avoid trouble - too well, many hold.
According to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), voting had "concluded in stable and peaceful manner." On Sunday, NEBE said more than 90 percent of the 32 million eligible voters across the nation had already voted in more than 43,000 polling stations. The voting process "was democratic, transparent and peaceful," NEBE concluded on the "successful" vote.
The impressive exercise in the impoverished nation was also hailed by the limited election observer team of the European Union (EU). The EU's chief observer, Thijs Berman, said Ethiopians held a peaceful and quiet election with high turnout. "I have not seen any irregularity and it was a peaceful, free and democratic election," Mr Berman said.
But in the months leading up to the elections, the opposition, human rights groups and media organisations reported of increased repression in Ethiopia. The harshest critics organising the 2005 protests were removed from the political and media scene already in 2005 and 2006. Remaining critical voices have been silenced in recent months, human rights activist claim.
"Behind an orderly façade, the government pressured, intimidated and threatened Ethiopian voters," said Rona Peligal of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch today. "Whatever the results, the most salient feature of this election was the months of repression preceding it," she added.
In the weeks leading up to the polls, the human rights group documented how the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) intimidated voters in the capital, Addis Ababa, apparently because of government concerns of a low electoral turnout. During April and May, officials and the tataqi militia "went house to house telling citizens to register to vote and to vote for the ruling party or face reprisals from local party officials such as bureaucratic harassment or even losing their homes or jobs," according to the group.
Also, the EPRDF is accused of systematically silencing dissent ahead of the polls. According to Human Rights Watch, government has sought to "restrict the media and independent civil society and leverage government resources such as civil service jobs, loans, food assistance and educational opportunities to encourage citizens to join the ruling party or leave the opposition."
Mr Berman of the EU election observer team today promised he would look into these many complaints of irregularities during the Ethiopian election. "We do not know at this stage yet what the extent of these irregularities can be, and how serious they are. We are busy evaluating this," he said. His mission, which only was let into Ethiopia in the last moment, however only had observed technical errors during the poll.
The Ethiopian government has reacted strongly to allegations of election fraud and intimidation. Prime Minister Meles says the polls have been democratic and free.
Mr Meles yesterday added he confident to win the elections thanks to his party's record on economic development. "Imagine a government which has delivered double-digit growth rates for over seven years losing an election anywhere on earth. It is unheard of for such a phenomenon to happen," the Prime Minister said.
After Sunday's voting, NEBE has now started the counting process, which is expected to take a long time due to the high turnout. NEBE has until 21 June to publish its official results.
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