ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, May 22 – Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country, holds general elections Sunday, the first since the death of long-time strongman Meles Zenawi whose successor Hailemariam Desalegn is seen as all but certain to stay in office.
Over 36.8 million Ethiopians have registered for the polls, considered by the international community as a key test of the state’s commitment to bring greater democracy to the Horn of Africa nation.
Rights groups routinely accuse Ethiopia of clamping down on opposition supporters and journalists and using anti-terrorism laws to silence dissent and jail critics.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been in power for over two decades and is confident of a win, but insists the result will be decided on its economic record alone. Ethiopia is now one of Africa’s top performing economies and a magnet for foreign investment.
“There’s been improvement and people have seen that,” government spokesman Redwan Hussein told AFP.
“If they want to give us another chance they will vote for us. If they have a grudge, they will not give their vote to EPRDF. We will see the figures – but I don’t think we will lose many of the seats.”
Ethiopia, whose 1984 famine triggered a major global fundraising effort, has seen economic growth of more than 10 percent each year for the last five years, according to the World Bank.
Former Marxist rebel-turned-leader Meles, who died in 2012, was succeeded by Prime Minister Hailemariam, who has said he is committed to opening up the country’s political system to allow more space for opposition parties.
“It is an existential issue. If we do not have a proper multiparty democracy in this country, this country will end up like Somalia,” Hailemariam said late last year.
But the premier has also justified lawsuits taken against opposition leaders he accused of “links with terrorist organisations”.