By Barry Malone and Tsegaye Tadesse — ADDIS ABABA, April 13 (Reuters) – Ethiopia’s opposition accused the government of intimidation on Sunday as voters went to the polls for the first time since deadly post-election protests three years ago.
State radio said voters lined up peacefully from dawn to cast ballots. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government is expecting a big win, having fielded 4 million candidates for some 3.8 million local council and parliamentary seats on offer.
All Ethiopia’s 32 opposition parties combined managed only to put forward a few thousand hopefuls.
Bulcha Demeksa, leader of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDP), said most of his party’s candidates had been threatened and forced to pull out of the race.
“We could only run 2 percent of the 6,000 candidates we wanted to,” he said. “And there is a very low turnout today, there is no interest. This is very far from democracy.”
The biggest parliamentary opposition party, the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF), had already withdrawn its 20,000 candidates before election day, saying many had been prevented from registering by the authorities.
Meles’ special adviser, Bereket Simon, denied there had been any political intimidation or harassment.
“The opposition’s complaints have been investigated by the National Electoral Board and none of them were valid,” he said.
“Despite what happened in 2005, Ethiopians have shown a high commitment to the democratisation process,” he told Reuters.
Demonstrators took to the streets after polls in May 2005 that the opposition alleged were rigged. A parliamentary inquiry said 199 civilians and police were killed and 30,000 people arrested. The government denied rigging the ballot.
This week, a report on the current polls by U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said its researchers noted “systemic patterns of repression and abuse that have rendered the elections meaningless in many areas”.
Election officials said 26 million people — about a third of Ethiopia’s 77 million population — were eligible to vote.
Casting her ballot in the capital Addis Ababa, 27-year-old secretary Senait Yoseph said she was voting for the government.
“This government is the best we have ever had for development,” she said. “We’ll have no more violence.”
But Eshetu Tsegaye, a 58-year-old shop owner sat smoking outside a school being used as a polling centre, said he would not be venturing inside.
“I don’t support the government and we have no real opposition running this year,” he said. “Who can I vote for?” (Editing by Daniel Wallis and Mary Gabriel) (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/)