By Karim Lebhour
Addis Ababa (AFP) – Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country, holds general elections Sunday, the first since the death of long-time strongman Meles Zenawi whose successor Hailemariam Desalegn is seen as all but certain to stay in office.
Over 36.8 million Ethiopians have registered for the polls, considered by the international community as a key test of the state’s commitment to bring greater democracy to the Horn of Africa nation.
Rights groups routinely accuse Ethiopia of clamping down on opposition supporters and journalists and using anti-terrorism laws to silence dissent and jail critics.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been in power for over two decades and is confident of a win, but insists the result will be decided on its economic record alone. Ethiopia is now one of Africa’s top performing economies and a magnet for foreign investment.
“There’s been improvement and people have seen that,” government spokesman Redwan Hussein told AFP.
“If they want to give us another chance they will vote for us. If they have a grudge, they will not give their vote to EPRDF. We will see the figures — but I don’t think we will lose many of the seats.”
Ethiopia, whose 1984 famine triggered a major global fundraising effort, has seen economic growth of more than 10 percent each year for the last five years, according to the World Bank.
Former Marxist rebel-turned-leader Meles, 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.
“It is an existential issue. If we do not have a proper multiparty democracy in this country, this country will end up like Somalia,” Hailemariam said late last year.
But the premier has also justified lawsuits taken against opposition leaders he accused of “links with terrorist organisations”.
The opposition accuses the government of using authoritarian tactics to ensure a poll victory.
“The political space has been closed,” said Yilekal Getinet, leader of Semayawi, the “Blue Party” in Ethiopia’s Amharic language and one of the main opposition parties.
“Many journalists, political activists, civil society leaders have been sent to jail or forced to leave the country,” he declared.
At Semayawi’s headquarters, activists claimed widespread intimidation by the ruling party.
“Our people are detained, harassed by EPRDF members and uniformed police. We asked the municipality frequently to make demonstrations, rallies, meetings and they denied us every time,” party activist Solomon Tessama said.
“The main problem is that the government and the party are not separate. The media, the security, the finances are under their control. On the ground, there are no free and fair elections.”
A official from the Agaw Democratic Party claimed that some of its activists in the northern towns of Bahir Dar and Gondar had been arrested or beaten.
Such complaints are dismissed as “baseless” by the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE).
“The situation is better than previous years. The environment created for political parties this year is exceptional,” NEBE president Merga Bekana said.
The Election Commission will deploy some 40,000 observers at 45,795 polling stations.
The only foreign election observers are from the African Union, which has sent a team of 59. The European Union and the US-based Carter Center, which monitored 2005 and 2010 elections, were not invited back this time.
Candidates from 58 parties are running for office, but each must go through a system of drawing lots organized by the NEBE to limit to 12 the number of candidates per constituency.
Critics say the system is designed to hamper the main challengers — Semayawi, for example, had 456 applicants, but only 139 were allowed.
The 2010 election was won by the ruling EPRDF in a landslide. The party and its allies took all but one of the 547 seats in the House of People’s Representatives.
The main opposition parties rejected the results, claiming fraud, but their appeals were turned down by the electoral board and the supreme court.
Those polls were peaceful, unlike in 2005, when the opposition’s accusations of irregularities sparked violence that left 200 people dead. The opposition won 172 seats in that vote