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May 24, 2015 6:57 AM

Ethiopians vote in 1st election without former strongman

The Associated Press

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) Ethiopians started voting Sunday in national and regional elections in which the ruling party is expected to maintain its iron-clad grip on power.

More than 36 million voters were registered to vote in this East African nation of about 90 million people. Some opposition groups threatened to boycott the vote, saying their members are being harassed and detained charges the government denies.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, a former university professor-turned-politician, has been leading the country since the death in 2012 of strongman Meles Zenawi, who built the ruling coalition into a powerful political organization. These are Ethiopia's first elections since Zenawi's death. Desalegn is expected to remain in power.

In 2010, the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, won 99.6 percent of all parliamentary seats. Only one opposition lawmaker won a seat in an election that watchdog groups said was marred by intimidation and the harassment of opposition activists.

Human Rights Watch called that victory "the culmination of the government's five-year strategy of systematically closing down space for political dissent and independent criticism."

Those allegations have persisted in this year's election. The government has denied the charges, instead accusing the opposition and neighboring arch-foe Eritrea of plotting to disrupt the vote.

"We remain vigilant and confident that the general election will be peaceful, free and fair, notwithstanding destabilization attempts that may be tried by Eritrea or its local emissaries, which we will respond to with stern measures," Desalegn said Thursday.

There were long lines of voters early Sunday inside Addis Ababa University's main campus in the capital.

Bewend Mathios, a native of southern Ethiopia who studies law at the university, said he had made an "informed decision" based on what the parties had said in media debates as well as leaflets distributed to students.

But some Addis Ababa residents complained about the ruling party's apparent domination.

"Almost all of the election observers who were present at the polling stations were the ruling party's sympathizers," said Eyob Mesafint, a lawyer in Addis Ababa who supports the opposition. "We all know the hardships that opposition party members came through. They were not able to introduce their programs to their constituents as much as they could."

More than 45,000 polling stations will be open with nearly 250,000 election observers assigned to monitor them. The National Election Board of Ethiopia said provisional results are expected in a week but final results won't be released before June 22.

Ethiopia is a federal parliamentary republic and the party or coalition that wins the most seats in the 547-seat parliament will form the next government. All parliament seats are being voted on Sunday, as well as local offices.


This story has been corrected to show that Ethiopia has more than 36 million registered voters, not more than 38 million.


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