Ethiopians vote in test of democracy
Addis Ababa, May 23, 2010
Ethiopians voted on Sunday in national elections that are expected to return long-serving Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to power in the first ballot since a disputed poll in 2005 turned violent.
The opposition admits it has little chance of victory but says that is because the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has tightened its grip on power and routinely intimidates and jails its critics.
In 2005, riots broke out in the capital Addis Ababa when the EPRDF was declared winner. Security forces killed 193 protesters and seven policemen also died in trouble that tarnished the reputation of one of the world's biggest aid recipients.
The EPRDF says it has since won popularity during a period of sustained economic growth by building roads, hydropower dams and electrifying villages in a country where nearly 10 percent of the population needed emergency food aid last year.
Polls opened at 6 am (0300 GMT) and will close at 6 pm.
Some 32 million Ethiopians, 90 percent of eligible voters, will make their choices at more than 43,000 polling stations.
While there has been some violence in the Oromia and Tigray regions, the capital appeared calm on polling day.
At the University of Addis Ababa, hundreds of students queued quietly to vote in lecture halls. Election officials checked voting cards, put indelible ink on the thumbnail of each person and explained the party symbols on the ballot paper.
Students said the election cards had been distributed fairly, they felt free to vote for whichever party they wanted and that they would accept the outcome.
"The process is very fair and it is democratic," said Hirpa Kumela, a 21-year-old psychology student. "Yes, I'll accept the results. I'm electing legally with my own attitude."
Meles became leader of Ethiopia in 1991 when a rebel group led by him ousted a communist regime that killed hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians in a 17-year rule.
The biggest challenge comes from the eight-party coalition Medrek -- or the Forum -- that is united chiefly by its desire to unseat Meles and has put forward few actual policies.
Medrek is running 421 candidates for the 547-seat federal parliament, not as high as the EPRDF's 521, but enough to form a clear majority should they pull off a shock win.
The next biggest opposition parties, the All Ethiopian Unity Organisation and the Ethiopian Democratic Party are running 350 and 250 candidates respectively.
Western diplomats in Addis Ababa say they are anxious to see improvements in a secular country which is an ally in the fight against hardline Islam in the region. - Reuters