Ethiopians vote amid opposition charges of fraud

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Sunday, May 15, 2005

Millions of voters in Ethiopia are choosing between a powerful government which has close ties to the West but is considered by some to be totalitarian, and a coalition of little-known opposition parties that has promised greater political freedom and economic development. The democratic ballot is only the third in the country's history.

A small crowd of supporters enthusiastically greeted Prime Minister Meles Zenawi as he arrived at the polling station in Adwa. The town of Adwa, located about 25 kilometers east of the ancient city of Axum, is also the prime minister's birthplace.

Meles did not address the crowd. But he told reporters he believes the national elections represent an important milestone in Ethiopia's quest to become a full-fledged democratic state.

"I fought to make sure the Ethiopian people have the right to make their decisions," Meles said. "I am now exercising it as an Ethiopian and I am very proud of our achievement."

Meles is seeking his third five-year term in office. His ruling party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has been in power for 14 years. During that time, the party has not been challenged in this mostly poor, subsistence farming region.

The party was the only one listed on the ballot paper in Adwa.

The ruling party says none of the major opposition parties bothered to register and campaign for votes in this remote area. But opposition leaders say electoral officials, whom the opposition accuses of being pro-government, would not allow their parties to register or campaign in the area.

The accusation is just one of numerous complaints of irregularity the opposition has lodged.

Hailu Shawel, the head of Ethiopia's opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy, cast his vote in an opposition stronghold south of the capital Addis Ababa. Shawl says that in his opinion the balloting has not been the model of democracy that people had hoped for.

"I think disaster is looming. Everywhere there is fraud being perpetrated," said Mr. Shawel. "The marker that they [the voters] were given, it washes off even without water. In other areas, they mark ballot papers with EPDRF signs and giving to people to put in the ballot boxes. And the people are fighting back, saying, 'No, we are not going to do that. Give us the clean paper.' So, the whole process is really jeopardized at the moment."

The government denies that it has been trying to prevent a fair vote, noting that the opposition received unprecedented access to state-owned media and were given permission to stage mass demonstrations ahead of the ballot.

For the first time, more than 300 international observers, including 150 from the European Union and 50 from the U.S.-based Carter Center, are in Ethiopia to monitor the elections. They fanned out before dawn to visit some of the 31,000 polling stations set up throughout the country.

The observers say they plan to investigate reports of any irregularities, but most say they have not seen any serious problems, largely calling the polls honest and fair. Final results are not expected until early June.

In previous elections held in 1995 and 2000, the ruling EPRDF won by overwhelming margins, giving the party a solid majority in parliament.

About 25 million of Ethiopia's 71 million people are registered to vote. The elections are being closely watched in the West as a key test of Ethiopia's commitment to democracy and being a stabilizing force in the volatile Horn of Africa region.

This article originally appeared on the website of The Voice of America, the official broadcasting service of the United States government, but has been modified by Wikinews editors. The original article was written by Alisha Ryu and can be found at this location. All text, audio and video material produced exclusively by the Voice of America is in the public domain and can be used by anyone for any purpose.