Ethiopia’s National Election Board (NEB) was criticised by a local watchdog on Monday for barring thousands of domestic observers from monitoring the country’s parliamentary elections in May.
Netsanet Demissie, director of the Organisation for Social Justice (OSJ) - an umbrella group of 35 Ethiopian organisations - said new rules imposed by the board would exclude at least two-thirds of their planned observation team.
"This is going to have a very negative impact," Netsanet, whose body was hoping to field around 3,000 observers for Ethiopia’s third-ever democratic ballot, told a news conference. "This is definitely a setback for holding free and fair elections."
Under new rules, local organisations wanting to monitor elections must meet two criteria: they must have registered with the government as election observers when they were originally founded, and they must also prove that they are independent.
Netsanet said only a handful of groups hoping to monitor the elections would have originally registered as observers because the idea was a new phenomenon in Ethiopia.
Kemal Bedri, chairman of the NEB, admitted the new rules could dramatically reduce the numbers of domestic observers hoping to monitor the elections.
However, he told reporters: "You can’t just welcome anybody in to pass judgement on a very sensitive matter. Accreditation cannot be automatic. There must be some requirements."
"Domestic observers have a stake in the outcome of the election," he added. "It is not like international observers - for them it doesn’t matter who won the elections. But here we know that there are organisations who are a front for a political party, governing or opposition," Kemal added.
According to Netsanet, the OSJ had written to the NEB asking it to repeal the new directive, although he said he had little hope the NEB would change its mind.
Western diplomats also expressed surprise at the NEB’s ruling. "It is very harsh," one diplomat monitoring the forthcoming polls told IRIN. "It is pretty tough criteria to have because it is very unlikely that many organisations, especially in Ethiopia where election observation is quite a new concept, would have considered doing this."
Ethiopia came under fire last month for expelling three American organisations – which were helping to prepare for May’s elections - claiming they were operating illegally in the country.
The NEB announced it was withdrawing 100,000 indelible ink pens after it emerged that the ink – which is supposed to last two weeks – could be easily wiped off.
The pens are used to mark voters’ hands with purple ink so they cannot go to another polling station and vote again. Kemal said it would have been "disastrous" if the ink were used during polling.
More than 25 million of Ethiopia's 71 million people have registered to vote in the legislative elections on 15 May.
Some 35 political parties will vie for seats in the 547-seat Council of People's Representatives, the lower house of parliament. Elected Ministers of Parliament will then choose a prime minister.
Voters will also elect representatives in nine regional state parliaments that appoint members of the 108-seat Council of the Federation, the upper chamber.