Ethiopia votes with ruling party set to return

Karim Lebhour
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An Ethiopian woman casts her ballot on May 24, 2015 in Addis Ababa

An Ethiopian woman casts her ballot on May 24, 2015 in Addis Ababa (AFP Photo/Zacharias Abubeker)

Addis Ababa (AFP) - Ethiopians voted Sunday in the country's first general elections since the death of strongman Meles Zenawi in 2012, with his successor Hailemariam Desalegn all but certain to stay in power.

Over 36.8 million Ethiopians registered for Sunday's polls, but analysts say the election in Africa's second-most populous nation falls far short of true democracy. The opposition also alleges the government has used authoritarian tactics to guarantee victory.

The outgoing Ethiopian parliament had one opposition MP, and one of the main opposition candidates, Yilekal Getinet, accused the government of "closing" political space.

Voters stood peacefully in lines in the capital Addis Ababa. Stations were calm, without long queues but a regular flow of people passing through to cast their ballots.

Posters of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) dominate the capital, and the party is again expected to get a near-clean sweep of the 547 seat parliament.

"I except the EPRDF to win - but maybe the opposition will get more seats so there will be more discussion about what the government is doing," said Wossen, who was waiting to vote. "It is better for the country -- now there is only one opposition MP and no discussion."

Polls opened at 6:00 am (0300 GMT) and closed at 6:00 pm (1500 GMT), with initial results expected within two to five days, and final official tallies on June 22.

African Union observer mission chief Hifikepunye Pohamba, a former president of Namibia, described the elections as "peaceful and orderly".

Three observers from different parties were seen in stations in the capital's Kazanches and Cherkos districts, but in other centres only observers from the ruling party were present.

"So far, so good. I did not see any problem," said an observer from the opposition Semayawi party.

Some security vehicles with water cannons were seen on the streets, but the city was calm.

The EPRDF, in power for over two decades, insists the result will be based on its economic record alone.

Ethiopia is now one of Africa's top performing economies and a magnet for foreign investment. It also remains a favourite of key international donors, despite concerns over human rights, as a bastion of stability in an otherwise troubled region.

Rights groups -- which routinely accuse Ethiopia of clamping down on opposition supporters and journalists, and of using anti-terrorism laws to silence dissent and jail critics -- have said polls would not be free or fair due to a lack of freedom of speech.

- 'Not much of a democratic exercise' -

Addis Ababa dismissed such criticism, with government spokesman Redwan Hussein telling AFP that voters would choose their representatives based on performance.

"If they want to give us another chance they will vote for us," he said. "If they have a grudge, they will not."

Abebe Simegni, a lawyer, said after voting that the government had kept the country on the right track. He said there "had been a lot of information, with debates on the radio, different parties were arguing -- we know thoroughly which party is for sustainable development and which are not."

Ethiopia, whose 1984 famine triggered a major global fundraising effort, has experienced near-double-digit economic growth and huge infrastructure investment.

Former Marxist rebel-turned-leader Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012, was succeeded by Prime Minister Hailemariam, who has said he is committed to opening up the country's political system to allow more space for opposition parties.

The Election Commission said they have deployed some 40,000 observers at 45,795 polling stations.

The only foreign election observers are from the AU, which has sent a team of 59 officials. The European Union and the US-based Carter Center, which monitored 2005 and 2010 elections, were not invited back this time.

"Electoral defeat is not on the cards for Ethiopia's ruling party, but it is vital for the country's development that it engages more effectively with dissenting voices," said Jason Mosley, from Britain's Chatham House think tank.

"While symbolically significant... the polls are more of a logistical hurdle for the ruling party than a competitive, democratic exercise," Mosley said.

The EPRDF won 2010 elections in a landslide. Those polls were peaceful, in contrast with 2005, when opposition accusations of irregularities sparked violence that left 200 people dead. The opposition won 172 seats in that vote, but only one in 2010.