Ethiopia’s main opposition parties claimed they were headed for victory in the country’s national elections on Wednesday - two days after the government announced it had won.
The Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) said they had won 203 seats in the 547-member parliament after results from 260 constituencies had been counted.
"The CUD is very happy to inform all concerned that it has won in most of the constituencies where the ballot has been counted," CUD party Vice-Chairman Berhanu Nega told reporters. "The trend so far clearly indicates that the CUD would emerge as the winner with sufficient seats to form a government."
He said the results from about 70 other seats were known, but the opposition had not contested those constituencies.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), however, insisted it had won more than 300 seats, with a clear majority to form a government.
"I assure you the majority is in our hands," said Bereket Simon, Ethiopia’s information minister and spokesman for the EPRDF. "We know the results, and the majority is ours."
Democracy is still in its infancy in the Horn of Africa nation of 70 million people, which had been blighted by decades of poverty and authoritarian rule. The elections were only the third in the country’s history.
The opposition gains appeared to centre primarily on urban areas. The CUD believed it had won at least 21 of the 23 seats in the capital, Addis Ababa, and claimed to have unseated a number of ministers.
The opposition groups said the trend was being replicated in rural areas, where 85 percent of the population lives, as well.
At a press conference, the CUD said it had taken 133 seats while the UEDF had won 70 seats. Last week the two parties said they would form a coalition government if they won the elections, despite policy differences.
In the 2000 elections, the opposition - which was then regarded as divided and inconsequential – won fewer than 20 seats.
Beyene Petros, the UEDF spokesman, said, "The government is tampering with the ballot boxes to make sure it wins," and complained that across the country, opposition observers were being prevented from witnessing the tally.
Beyene said that security forces were being used to interfere with the vote counting, an assertion rejected by the government.
"They have to substantiate this claim. They are trying to discredit the process," Bereket added. "These allegations are absolutely untrue."
EU observers had said Sunday's vote was "the most genuinely competitive elections the country has experienced," despite some problems and human-rights violations.
A senior international election observer told IRIN on Wednesday, however, that they were “concerned” about delays in polling stations announcing the count.
"There are many polling stations out in the countryside who have not published their results as they should have," the observer said. "In some places it is because the counting took longer. In some places the counting has been done, so why aren’t the results published? It has been raised with the National Election Board [NEB]. The longer we wait, the more anxious people will get."
Twenty-six million Ethiopians registered to vote at 31,000 polling stations.
The NEB said any party could claim victory, but only the official results count. "It is the election board who have the legal authority to say who won," NEB Chairman Kemal Bedri said.
The board, he added, would not issue provisional results until Saturday. Official and final results are to be announced on 8 June.