ETHIOPIA

Polls close as Ethiopian opposition cries foul

Ethiopians voted on Sunday in legislative elections, with early indicators pointing to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi continuing his 19 years at the helm. The opposition claims Zenawi's ruling coalition rigged its way to re-election.

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AFP - Ethiopia's legislative polls Sunday were marred by opposition allegations that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's ruling coalition was rigging its way to re-election.

Polling stations closed at 6:00 pm (1500 GMT) with no major violence reported across the vast country -- sub-Saharan Africa's second most populous -- but opposition leaders in several regions cried foul.

"It doesn't look like an election, even by African standards," said Merara Gudina, one of the top leaders of the opposition coalition Medrek.

The election commission said it had no evidence of fraud and that its officers were on the ground to ensure the vote was running smoothly.

The last polls in 2005 saw the opposition record its best ever showing but led to violence that killed 200 people and triggered a government crackdown that left the regime's main challengers jailed, exiled or greatly weakened.

With the country's most charismatic opposition figure in prison and what rights groups have criticised as shrinking political freedom during the campaign, Meles seems guaranteed to keep his job.

Merara cited several cases of suspected fraud in the southern opposition stronghold of Oromiya, particularly in the town of Ambo.

"As of now, 80 percent of all the polling stations of this whole area around Ambo, are without our observers," Merara told AFP in Guder, another town in Oromiya, a region home to Ethiopia's largest tribe.

"There is no law that forces us to accept any result," he said, adding he had reports of ballot boxes being stuffed.

In Meles' hometown of Adwa, an erstwhile supporter of the premier who is now running for the opposition, complained of a litany of irregularities.

Aregash Adana told AFP that many voters were not allowed to cast their ballot in secrecy, that opposition campaign posters were torn down overnight and that party observers were barred from monitoring the polling.

"It is a very undemocratic process, the general atmosphere is not conducive... I think there will be manipulations," she said.

The European Union deployed some 160 observers and the African Union 60 for the polls during which the country's 32 million registered voters were called to elect the 547-strong lower House of Representatives and regional councillors, who in turn will elect the upper chamber of parliament.

Another senior opposition leader spoke of suspected fraud by the ruling EPRDF coalition in other parts of the country.

Adissu Buebre Egziabher, the vice chairman of the electoral board, rejected the allegations.

"This is totally absurd. They are complaining without any evidence," he told AFP.

Human Rights Watch charged during the campaign earlier this year that the government was "waging a coordinated and sustained attack on political opponents, journalists, and rights activists."

Birtukan Mideksa, the 36-year-old woman who emerged from the 2005 electoral chaos as Ethiopia's most inspirational opposition figure, is serving a life sentence in jail.

She has often been dubbed "the Ethiopian Aung San Suu Kyi", in reference to Myanmar's detained pro-democracy activist.

Observers say that the rest of the opposition, despite joining forces under the Medrek umbrella, remains weak and divided and has not recovered from the repression that followed the 2005 post-electoral unrest.

While opposition candidates were venting their anger at alleged cases of fraud, opposition supporters even in rebellious Oromiya seemed unprepared to take their protest to the streets in a repeat of the 2005 events.

"I don't think there ever will be any incident on the scale of 2005. People get tired of bickering. I think everyone wants to enjoy living peacefully now, no matter what they think of the government," said one Medrek voter in his fifties.

Despite his poor rights record, Meles is steering ambitious development programmes and rapid economic growth that earn him solid support at home and abroad.

Foreign criticism of the regime's authoritarianism has been all the more muted as Meles -- whose country borders Eritrea and Somalia -- remains a key US and Western ally in the fight against Islamic extremism.

"It's a great thing if there are several opposition parties, but when it comes to the long-term stability of the country and the region, Meles is still your best bet," one Addis-based diplomat said.

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