By Barry Malone, Feb 17 (Reuters) – Ethiopia’s main opposition coalition said on Wednesday that some of its candidates were being prevented at gunpoint from registering for national elections in May.
The eight-party coalition, Medrek, also said it had obtained a ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) newsletter calling on party officials to follow, photograph and document the movements of opposition members.
“In a lot of areas we have faced serious problems,” Medrek spokesman Merera Gudina told a news conference.
“In some areas our candidates were turned back at gunpoint. A candidate’s driver was told to leave town immediately or his car would be burned,” he said.
The Horn of Africa country’s election will be the first since a government victory in 2005 was disputed by the opposition. About 200 street protesters were killed by security forces and the main opposition leaders imprisoned.
Analysts say Medrek is the main threat to the 18-year-old government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, but the ruling party is still expected to win the May 23 poll. [ID:nL1641132]
The opposition says this is because they are harassed and jailed. The government says the opposition is trying to discredit the poll because it has no chance of winning.
Meles was hailed as part of a new generation of democratic African leaders in the 1990s but rights groups have increasingly criticised him for cracking down on opposition in sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous nation.
Meles has agreed an electoral code of conduct with three opposition parties — two of which are dismissed by opponents as EPRDF aligned. Medrek refused to take part in talks saying crucial issues such as electoral board reform were left out.
Government spokesman Shimeles Kemal told Reuters the code outlined complaint procedures but the opposition had not yet used it to make allegations about being threatened at gunpoint.
“If they want to make the complaints officially they can, and they will be investigated,” Shimeles said. “Why haven’t they? Most of the complaints the opposition have made publicly so far have been proven to be false.”
Medrek described the EPRDF members newsletter it had obtained as an “election manual”.
“It describes us as anti-Ethiopia, anti-people, anti-peace, anti-development, all kinds of anti,” Merera said, showing the document in Amharic to the media.
Former Ethiopian President Negaso Gidada, who joined the opposition after falling out with Meles, said the newsletter tells ruling party officials to track opposition members.
“It tells them to get any kind of document in your hand from opposition parties in your area,” Negaso told Reuters. “And these documents could serve as evidence to be used against opposition leaders to accuse them and bring them to court.”
Ruling party spokesman, Hailemariam Desalegn, acknowledged that EPRDF members had been told to observe opposition members, but only to ensure they were not violating the code of conduct or provoking civil disobedience.
“The opposition always makes unfounded allegations against us,” Hailemariam told Reuters. “We need to ensure that if we accuse them, we have evidence.”
Candidates have five more days to register for the poll. (Editing by David Clarke and Jon Boyle)