- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2005

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopians voted by the millions yesterday, responding enthusiastically to an unprecedentedly open parliamentary race between the coalition that ended a brutal dictatorship and an opposition promising greater liberalization.

The worst problem foreign election observers found was the crowds, with some voters waiting hours to cast their ballots. But a senior opposition official said after the vote that his party’s observers had been chased out of polling centers where ballots were being tallied.

More than 500 foreign observers, including former President Jimmy Carter and 24 teams from his human rights and development center, were monitoring the polls.

“In many places our poll watchers are being kicked out and we don’t know who is counting the vote,” said Berhanu Nega, vice chairman of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy.

His party had not decided whether to accept the results. “This is too important to rush into a decision,” he said. “We need to get all data.”

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, known as one of the continent’s more progressive leaders, pledged that his sometimes authoritarian government would introduce greater democracy.

But late yesterday he banned demonstrations in Addis Ababa starting today and took control of the capital’s police force.

“I have heard the comments of the foreign observers, and the elections were peaceful and democratic,” Mr. Meles said in an address on state radio.

Mr. Berhanu said the ban was attempt to cover up voting fraud.

Many have pointed to yesterday’s election — pitting the ruling coalition that ended a brutal dictatorship in 1991 against new opposition parties who promise greater liberalization — as a test of his commitment to reform.

Provisional results were to be announced at each polling station today, and official results will be certified June 8.

National Electoral Board Chairman Kemal Bedri said by calling results into question, opposition leader are “not doing justice to those people who have been standing in queues to vote for 10 to 12 hours.”

Voters overwhelmed the polls, and anyone in line at closing was allowed to vote. More than 25 million people had registered. Election officials estimated turnout at more than 85 percent, much higher than in the 2000 elections, which were considered less democratic.

Ana Gomes, the top observer from the European Union, criticized the opposition call to reject the results, which came before polls closed.

“It is a bit difficult to understand why those who are also responsible for the success want to discredit it so early,” she said.

Mr. Meles said earlier his government would accept defeat if international observers said the opposition had won.

“I was very proud and fought to make sure the Ethiopian people have the right to make their own decisions. I am now exercising it as an Ethiopian, and I’m very proud of this achievement,” Mr. Meles said.

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