By ANITA POWELL (AP) – ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopians began voting in national elections Sunday, in a vote closely watched by international observers and by critics who say the U.S.-allied ruling party has intimidated voters and challengers to secure an easy victory.
Opposition members and the ruling party’s critics say the poll will likely lead to a new decade of power for Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who seized control of the Horn of Africa country in a 1991 coup.
Meles’ Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front denies it repressed its opponents and says candidates have been able to campaign freely. But opposition members say they have been harassed and two of their campaigners have been killed under mysterious circumstances.
Opposition leaders say they worry the election may turn into a repeat of 2005’s contentious poll, when about 100 opposition politicians and activists who challenged the results were arrested.
The opposition and some analysts also say the government has systematically stifled the competition since 2005 and ensured an uneventful election by enacting restrictive laws that restrict aid groups from working on human rights issues and hinder the media.
While the ruling party and election officials have said the election would be free and fair, Ethiopia is frequently criticized for its human rights record, including by the U.S. State Department, which in a March report cited reports of “unlawful killings, torture, beating, abuse and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, often acting with evident impunity.”
Still, the U.S. considers Ethiopia an ally. Both countries want to curb Islamist extremism in Somalia, Ethiopia’s unstable neighbor to the east. Ethiopia is reliant on billions of dollars of foreign aid, most of it from the U.S.
Meles’ rule has weathered many challenges: droughts, tensions over a disputed border with Eritrea and rebel movements around the country. The Ethiopian army also made an incursion into neighboring Somalia in late 2006 to support the weak U.N.-backed Somali government in its fight against Islamist insurgents before withdrawing last year.
Election board chairman Merga Bekana said Saturday that the election would be free and transparent. He urged voters to “behave,” adding that they should “be ready to respect the ballot and work with the winner.”
Posters bearing images of the ruling party’s mascot — a lifelike bee, enlarged on some posters to the size of a housecat and silhouetted with its stinger menacingly poised — plastered telephone poles and corrugated metal walls that surround buildings around Addis Ababa, the shambolic capital. The ruling party has based its campaign on promises of economic growth, agricultural development and improvements in health and education.
At a polling station in central Addis Ababa, dozens of voters queued at dawn to vote before polls opened at 6 a.m. (0300 GMT). Some 30 voters cast their ballots in the first half hour.
Kinde Moges, 35, a private security guard, said he came early to vote before starting work.
“The party I voted for is my choice because I know its past experience and its future hopes,” he said, indicating he voted for the ruling party. He said he thought the party he chose would help his three children get a good education and jobs, he said, to “support me in my old age.”
Polling stations in the center of the capital appeared calm, a marked contrast to the long lines and excited voters in the 2005 election. That year, a then-energetic opposition won an unprecedented number of parliamentary seats in this country of 85 million, only to endure police crackdowns and the killing of 193 demonstrators after the votes were counted.
The government has said observers from the European Union and the African Union can monitor the vote along with 40,000 local observers.
On the final day of campaigning Thursday, opposition leaders from Medrek, the largest opposition bloc, focused on what has become their main issue: the fairness of the election itself.
“If there’s an attempt to rig the election, the opposition along with the people will stay vigilant,” said Medrek chairman Beyene Petros.
Associated Press writer Samson Haileyesus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia contributed to this report.