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Ethiopian election stirs outrage at ruling party

Opposition calls for new vote

- 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.

"Behind an orderly facade, the government pressured, intimidated and threatened Ethiopian voters," it says. "Whatever the results, the most salient feature of this election was the months of repression preceding it."

The morning after the statement was released, tens of thousands of EPRDF supporters packed into Meskel Square in the center of Addis Ababa. Protesters said the event was a spontaneous display of anger at the international organization's attempt to undermine the will of the Ethiopian people.

"Respect our freedom," one protester boomed in English through a megaphone, while women trilled and the crowd cheered. "People are entitled to votes, and their choice cannot be determined by Human Rights Watch!"

While the crowd appeared unified in its anger for Human Rights Watch, the professionally printed signs, highly organized marches and the appearance of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi made the rally appear more like a victory party than a protest.

"This victory will make us proud," he told the crowd from a bulletproof-glass box on a nearby balcony. He also held out an olive branch to nonsupporters. "We would also like to say that we respect the people who have not voted for us."

Eskinder Nega, a journalist who was banned from practice after he was jailed in connection with his coverage of the 2005 elections, said the event had been planned weeks in advance. "They wanted this rally to reinforce their huge — and unbelievable, I might say — margin of victory," he said.

Like Human Rights Watch, the United States and European Union criticized the election process, saying it favored the ruling party. The U.S. accused the EPRDF of intimidating and harassing the opposition in the years leading up to the elections, and said in a press release "an environment conducive to free and fair elections was not in place."

The U.S. gives Ethiopia roughly $1 billion in aid a year and considers the country a key ally against Islamic extremists in Somalia. But Ethiopia will not be bullied by U.S. opinion, Mr. Meles said.

"The United States has every right to use its taxpayers' money as it sees fit," he said at a press conference in his office in the capital. "If they feel that the outcome of the elections are such that they cannot continue our partnership, that's fine. We should be very grateful for the assistance they have given us so far, and move on."

The European Union observation team was more cautious in its critique, but agreed that the cards were stacked against the opposition parties. In its preliminary report, the EU said the EPRDF used government resources for campaign purposes, had unfair access to the state-run media and blocked other news sources, such as Voice of America broadcasts. And without a national voting list, certain kinds of fraud may have gone undetected, like double voting.

Mr. Meles dismissed the EU critique, saying it was based on opinion and unproven allegations, not facts. The election, he said, was "recognized as a legitimate one, a credible one, by everyone with a sense of justice. Everyone with a modicum of a sense of justice recognized that fact."

EU chief observer Thijs Berman also offered praise for the election, saying ballots were confidential, voter turnout was high and the day was peaceful. He said he had heard allegations of voter harassment and intimidation, but had not seen any proof.

But a climate of fear surrounding the elections makes it difficult to gather information, he added. "People are very cautious to express their opinion," Mr. Berman said. "People are very cautious who is listening when they speak with you — not to make mistakes."

Outside the offices of the opposition Unity for Justice and Democracy party, some angry young members were not afraid to speak their minds.

"Always, we are practicing false democracy here in Ethiopia," said 19-year old Achame Lazarus, who spent Election Day in a polling station as an observer for the opposition. "Things are going not on the right track."

Other opposition election observers said the ruling party won the capital by micromanaging the voters. Individual EPRDF supporters, they said, were assigned a small group of potential voters. Their job was to "do whatever it takes" to make sure citizens appeared at the polls, to vote for the EPRDF.

Outside the polls on Election Day, however, EPRDF supporters said they were not intimidated, harassed or pressured to vote for the party. Armed officers in purple fatigues watched voters who stopped to talk to reporters carefully, but did not come close enough to listen to their words.

In the bustling Haya Hulet market the previous evening, while Zoudit Tesfae waited for her jacket to be tailored, she said the ruling party was wildly popular, and does not need to intimidate voters to win. She said the EPRDF has overseen tremendous developments in education and infrastructure in Ethiopia.

Ms. Tesfae also said she was planning to vote for the ruling party because she has bad memories of life under the former Soviet-backed government, known as the Derg. Before the EPRDF ousted the Derg regime in 1991, her mother was forced to hide her sons to protect their lives.

"I don't want to remember that time," she said. "I was a child."

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