– ‘Exceptional’ democracy? –
The opposition accuses the government of using authoritarian tactics to ensure a poll victory.
“The political space has been closed,” said Yilekal Getinet, leader of Semayawi, the “Blue Party” in Ethiopia’s Amharic language and one of the main opposition parties.
“Many journalists, political activists, civil society leaders have been sent to jail or forced to leave the country,” he declared.
At Semayawi’s headquarters, activists claimed widespread intimidation by the ruling party.
“Our people are detained, harassed by EPRDF members and uniformed police. We asked the municipality frequently to make demonstrations, rallies, meetings and they denied us every time,” party activist Solomon Tessama said.
“The main problem is that the government and the party are not separate. The media, the security, the finances are under their control. On the ground, there are no free and fair elections.”
A official from the Agaw Democratic Party claimed that some of its activists in the northern towns of Bahir Dar and Gondar had been arrested or beaten.
Such complaints are dismissed as “baseless” by the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE).
“The situation is better than previous years. The environment created for political parties this year is exceptional,” NEBE president Merga Bekana said.
The Election Commission will deploy some 40,000 observers at 45,795 polling stations.
The only foreign election observers are from the African Union, which has sent a team of 59. The European Union and the US-based Carter Centre, which monitored 2005 and 2010 elections, were not invited back this time.
Candidates from 58 parties are running for office, but each must go through a system of drawing lots organized by the NEBE to limit to 12 the number of candidates per constituency.
Critics say the system is designed to hamper the main challengers — Semayawi, for example, had 456 applicants, but only 139 were allowed.
The 2010 election was won by the ruling EPRDF in a landslide. The party and its allies took all but one of the 547 seats in the House of People’s Representatives.
The main opposition parties rejected the results, claiming fraud, but their appeals were turned down by the electoral board and the Supreme Court.
Those polls were peaceful, unlike in 2005, when the opposition’s accusations of irregularities sparked violence that left 200 people dead. The opposition won 172 seats in that vote.