ADDIS ABABA, May 25 – Ethiopia\’s long-time ruler Meles Zenawi on Tuesday celebrated a landslide election victory which the opposition slammed as fraudulent and European observers as unfair.
Tens of thousands of ruling party supporters thronged a city square after the electoral commission released preliminary results late Monday showing the ruling coalition had a wide lead across the country.
Meles, who has led Ethiopia since 1991, said voters had faith in his party.
"We only know as of now the partial results, but we have been able to observe that people have chosen the party that they have faith in," he told the cheering crowd.
But the oppposition charged the 55-year-old strongman, who has ruled sub-Saharan Africa\’s second most populous country for two decades, had rigged his way to re-election in Sunday\’s polls.
"I don\’t see any reason why we should accept the results that were completely fraudulent," said Merara Gudina, one of the top leaders of the main opposition coalition Medrek.
"They took over all aspects of the electoral adminstration, including the count," he said, referring to the ruling EPRDF coalition.
"We are currently looking at what measures we should take next at a party meeting today," he added.
In 2005, the opposition scored its best showing ever and claimed Meles stole the vote, sparking violence that left 200 people dead and drew international criticism of the Horn of Africa\’s ruling regime.
The European Union observation mission on Tuesday took a tougher line than on election day and said the campaign and the polls were marked by restrictions on political freedom and the unfair use of state resources by the regime.
"The title of our preliminary report is high turnout on election day but marred by narrowing political space and (an) uneven political field," Thijs Berman, the head of the European Union\’s observsation mission, told reporters.
"The separation between the ruling party and the administration was blurred in many cases at the local level," Berman added. "The EU observed the use of state resources for the campaign."
He said voting "fell short of certain international commitments, notably regarding the transparency of the process and lack of a level playing field for all contesting parties."
The violence that swept the country five years ago has left the opposition weakened, with many of its leaders jailed or exiled and its supporters wary of further bloodshed.
Another top Medrek leader said Tuesday his movement did not plan to take its protest to the streets but rather to the electoral commission (NEBE).
"What we are going to do after we get the results is that we give our statement and, if we have evidence, we\’ll appeal to the NEBE. If it doesn\’t solve our problem, we\’ll go to court," Negasso Gidada told AFP.
"We are not going to call for demonstration or rallies but just follow the legal process," he added.
Opposition leaders in several parts of the country complained on election day that voters were intimidated and their observers barred from many polling stations, leaving room for ballot box-stuffing.
Meles had been widely expected to win the polls in face of a weak opposition and after months of what rights groups described as shrinking political space.
The electoral commission said it had no evidence of fraud.
But the US-based Human Rights Watch said the ruling party had restricted opposition and media freedom ahead of the polls in order to avoid a repeat of the violent aftermath of the 2005 elections.
"Behind an orderly facade, the government pressured, intimidated and threatened Ethiopian voters," said Rona Peligal, the group\’s acting Africa director.
"Whatever the results, the most salient feature of this election was the months of repression preceding it."
But Meles\’ supporters dismissed the criticism and turned out in huge numbers for the victory rally.
"We have chosen our leaders, accept the results!" read placards addressed to foreign observers and hoisted by the crowd at the ruling coalition\’s victory rally in the capital Tuesday.