(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Huge turnout for federal elections

[Ethiopia] Ethiopian Prime Minister - Meles Zenawi.
IRIN

Millions of Ethiopians went to the polls on Sunday in elections that were widely expected to hand Prime Minister Meles Zenawi a third five-year term.

At dawn, huge queues of voters snaked around polling stations for the country’s third-ever elections in what is seen as a key test of Meles's plan to introduce greater democracy in this country of 70 million.

The poll had been marred by the opposition’s allegations of harassment up to the eve of voting. One of the main opposition groups, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), said hundreds of election monitors had been arrested, and it threatened not to accept the results of the vote.

Government officials dismissed the allegations.

European Union observers inspecting two polling stations in central Addis Ababa, one of the most hotly contested seats, found several hundred pre-marked ballots.

Observers, however, said the elections had generally been more competitively fought than the 2000 polls, which were won by the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.

Former US President Jimmy Carter, one of the 319 international election observers, said on Sunday the elections had gone smoothly.

"The reports we are getting is that it is all going peacefully," he told reporters after visiting polling stations in Addis Ababa.

Meles told reporters that his party would accept the results of the vote.

"If the international observers say the opposition won, we will accept that decision," the prime minister said while casting his vote in Adwa, in the northern Tigray province.

The CUD, led by Hailu Shawel, a wealthy businessman, fielded 400 candidates and presently has three members in parliament.

"Ethiopia today has its destiny in its hands," Hailu said as he prepared to vote just after the polls opened at dawn. "We hope Ethiopia is going to call it a day and empower itself."

The other main opposition group, the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF), has nine representatives in parliament and fielded 240 candidates.

Beyene Petros, vice-chairman of the UEDF, said his party believed widespread abuses had taken place, claiming their observers and some candidates had been locked up.

"Even on the eve of the voting, our observers are being arrested, harassed and denied access," he told a news conference on Saturday. "We are extremely distressed, having worked very hard. The reports we are receiving are only the tip of the iceberg."

The EU chief observer, Ana Gomes, told journalists there had been some scattered irregularities but her concern was the "flood" of voters and the delays in casting their ballots. Some voters had to wait up to six hours to vote.

More than 25 million people had registered to vote, and the electoral board predicted that 90 percent of them had cast their ballot at one of the 31,000 polling stations. Provisional results at each station were expected to be announced on Monday, and official results will be certified on 8 June.

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