- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2010

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia | Nineteen-year-old Hanouk’s lips shook slightly, and he looked up and down the wide, rocky pathway outside the polling station. He said he just voted for an opposition party.

Ruling-party supporters had been visiting his house for months, he said, sometimes four times a day, pressuring him to vote for the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

Hanouk said he was a little scared of being punished for admitting to voting for the opposition, but his actual ballot was secret. “They are going to win,” he said quietly, grinning. “We are going to have democracy and everything in the coming year. I think so.”

For many Ethiopians, last week’s election was an inspiring display of democracy, ending in a landslide victory for the EPRDF. For others, like Hanouk, it was a disaster. Opposition parties called for a new vote and accused the ruling party of threatening and tricking voters, and stuffing ballot boxes.

Preliminary results show the EPRDF winning more than 90 percent of the country’s 547 parliament seats, and all but sweeping the capital, Addis Ababa. Government officials hailed the May 23 election as peaceful and fair, with a turnout as high as 90 percent.

“More than any time in Ethiopia’s history, parties have worked together to ensure their common interest,” said government communications minister Bereket Simon. “That has been transparently done.”

According to opposition leaders, the results are bogus, and the election was rigged.

“This was not an a genuine election, but an activity,” said Hailu Shewal, head of the All Ethiopia Unity Party, one of the country’s largest opposition parties. “It was a drama acted by the EPRDF.”

A few days after the ballots were cast, opposition party supporters crowded on wooden benches and applauded after leaders denounced the election process and called for a new vote. According to Beyene Petros, who heads Medrek, the country’s largest opposition party, the struggle is just beginning.

“We will not be deterred by this setback,” he said. “Or by the desire of the ruling party to remain the only party.”

In 2005, after the last round of parliamentary elections, protesters took to the streets, claiming fraud. Almost 200 people were killed. More than 100 journalists, activists and opposition leaders were arrested. Most were pardoned two years later, but many now live in exile or remain in jail.

Two people have been killed in postelection violence this time around, and opposition leaders say hundreds of members have been arrested or beaten. Government officials confirmed the deaths, saying one was shot attempting to steal a ballot box.

Opposition leaders have urged calm among their supporters. They have formally requested a new vote from the election board, and say they are considering taking their case to the courts. But according to Mr. Shewal, neither strategy is likely to work because neither the election board nor the court system is independent of the ruling party.

“We have told our supporters outside of Addis [Ababa]: ‘Please be patient. We are submitting your complaints to the government. Let’s see what they do about it,’” he said. “That’s Step 1. Step 2 is something else.”

Human Rights Watch condemned the vote in a statement the day after the election.

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