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Ethiopia’s local elections marred by opposition boycott

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April 20, 2008 (ADDIS ABABA) — Ethiopians chose local representatives Sunday in nationwide elections marred by a boycott by the two largest opposition parties and criticized by a prominent international human rights group.

Government officials in the key U.S. ally touted the polls as a sign of Ethiopia’s commitment to democracy after the bloody aftermath of the 2005 general elections, but opposition parties said a systematic campaign of beatings, arrests and intimidation forced out more than 17,000 of their candidates.

Sunday was the second round of an election in which 4.5 million candidates are competing for 4 million seats, most of them in neighborhood councils. The voting in the first round a week earlier also included 38 seats in the federal parliament.

The ruling party has fielded a candidate for nearly every seat. Opposition politicians say it will be very difficult to campaign in the countryside in 2010’s general elections if the ruling party has a tight hold on rural Ethiopia.

During the last general elections, in 2005, police killed 193 protesters after election officials declared victory for the ruling party. Opposition leaders refused to take their seats in parliament, and more than 100 prominent opposition politicians were jailed, charged with treason and held for nearly two years. The events earned the censure of several international organizations and even prompted some, such as the World Bank, to restructure their aid packages to give less control to the Ethiopian government.

Throughout, the United States has remained a steadfast supporter of the East African military powerhouse, considered a key ally in the war on terror. Ethiopia also allows foreign terror suspects to be interrogated within its borders.

This year, the once-robust opposition bloc withered, as allegations surfaced of ballot-rigging, inflation of voting figures and intimidation of opposition candidates and voters.

"Our hopes and aspirations for democracy have been dashed," said Bulcha Demeksa, head of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement. He was speaking last week as he announced his party would boycott the second round of voting.

On Sunday, turnout appeared subdued at polling stations in the capital, despite earlier pronouncements by electoral officials that more than 90 percent of city-dwellers had voted in the first round of elections. An election official said several women voted hours after giving birth and state-run media outlets reported several new widows left their husbands’ funerals early to vote.

But in polling centers in the city, voters trickled in by ones and twos. Many of them wore palm leaf headdresses in celebration of Palm Sunday, which fell on April 20 by the Ethiopian calendar.

Government officials said results will be available by May 19.

(AP)

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