Mon, May 16, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Ethiopian voters test nation's democracy

NATIONAL ELECTIONS Voter turnout appeared to be high, and while the opposition had voiced worries over election fraud, observers reported no major problems


People line up to cast their votes outside a polling station in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia yesterday during the third democratic elections in Ethiopia's 3,000-year history.


Wrapped in white prayer shawls as priests sang hymns over loudspeakers, Ethiopian voters yesterday were choosing between the ruling coalition that ended a brutal dictatorship in 1991 and new opposition parties who promise greater liberalization.

The campaign under a government that has sometimes shown authoritarian tendencies had won qualified international approval, and foreign election observers reported no serious problems as voting progressed yesterday.

Foreign election observers were monitoring the elections for the first time in Ethiopia's history.

EU observers inspecting four polling stations found 454 ballots with an unclear irregular mark in central Addis Ababa and similar ballots outside the capital. None of the ballots were pre-marked for the ruling party, as earlier reported. Opposition politicians had charged that thousands of pre-marked ballots had been circulated.

The National Election Board said the mark was a printing error and Ethiopians finding such ballots need not worry that their votes would not be counted.

Late on Saturday, opposition leaders also accused the police of rounding up hundreds of opposition candidates and poll observers in order to rig the elections in the rural areas. Government officials denied the opposition allegations.

Voters had begun lining up before dawn on a cool, misty morning for the third election in the country's 3,000-year history. The turnout appeared extremely high, in marked contrast to the 2000 election. Polls close at 6pm local time, but anyone in line at closing time will be allowed to vote.

Derje Woubeshet, an unemployed 29-year-old, said he was voting for the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy because he felt the ruling party had failed to create jobs.

"They brought me disaster, all the people are fed up," he said outside a primary school in Addis Ababa. "They have been supported for the last 15 years, now we need a new government."

Wahib Toure, a cotton producer, said complaints do not make a political agenda and that he would vote for the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.

"The opposition talked about grievances, but that is not enough to be elected, they are not organized," Wahib, 60, said.

Beyene Petros, vice chairman of the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces, said he had seen reports of vote rigging that "are only the tip of the iceberg."

Petros produced a marked ballot with an electoral seal which was already marked for Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's ruling coalition. He said thousands of such ballots began circulating on Saturday.

Information Minister Bereket Simon said that he called police stations across the country to investigate the opposition claims. "This is absolutely false," Bereket said.

Former US president Jimmy Carter said that the 24 teams of observers from the Carter Center had reported no problems with the balloting early yesterday, but they were looking into the opposition's allegations. More than 500 foreign observers were monitoring the polls.

Ethiopia was an absolute monarchy under Emperor Haile Selassie until the mid-1970s, when a brutal Marxist junta overthrew him.

Civil wars wracked the ethnically fractured country in the 1980s, and famine took as many as 1 million lives. Meles' rebel group overthrew the junta in 1991. Meles became president, then prime minister in 1995, and is now seeking a third term.

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