/ 14 April 2008

Ethiopia votes in first round of elections

Ethiopians voted on Sunday in a first round of general elections that the opposition coalition boycotted to protest alleged intimidation of its candidates, and that an international rights group said would be unfair.

Governing coalition candidates were running virtually unchallenged after the main opposition coalition pulled out of the races for nearly four million positions, ranging from neighbourhood council jobs to parliamentary seats. About 4,5-million or so candidates were left vying for the seats.

The electoral board received no reports of irregularities or incidents before polls closed nationwide on Sunday evening, board official Tesfaye Mengesha said. A second round will be held on April 20.

The board did not have an official turnout figure, but Tesfaye estimated it would be about 90% of Ethiopia’s 26-million registered voters. The country’s total population is about 80-million.

In deeply religious Ethiopia, where the Ethiopian Orthodox Church holds lengthy, early-morning Sunday services, some even skipped their morning worship to cast ballots.

”It’s a good government,” Asrat Fanta (43) said after voting for the ruling party.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said, however, that opposition candidates and prospective voters had been threatened, attacked and arrested during campaigning, and that hopes for fair elections were doomed.

The largest coalition of opposition parties — the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces — said it was boycotting the vote because about 14 000 of its candidates had been forced to drop out after receiving threats or being denied registration.

Its leader, Beyene Petros, said that if any of the opposition coalition’s 6 000 remaining candidates won because their names remained on the ballots, printed before the boycott, they would withdraw.

Another opposition group said its 3 000 or so candidates also dropped out in similar circumstances.

Government and election officials denied the allegations of threats or intimidation, and said they expected these elections to be Ethiopia’s most free and fair.

Ethiopia has struggled in the past with election irregularities and violence, notably in the aftermath of 2005 general elections when security forces killed 193 protesters.

Many voters appeared confident that this ballot would be trouble-free.

”Everything seems to be calm, and hopefully we will get a party that stands for the people,” said Bezunesh Yimam (51), a teacher who said only that she was voting for a party that would provide ”the right service that I’ve been deprived of.” She would not elaborate.

Other voters were less hopeful.

Housekeeper Letarik Chane (22) said she was still angry over the 2005 violence and decided to abstain from this year’s vote.

”In the last election, I waited for a full day to vote and was really disappointed in the aftermath of the results,” which opposition parties said were rigged to allow the ruling coalition to regain parliamentary control. ”I do not want to repeat the same mistake again,” Letarik said. — Sapa-AP