Opposition allege vote rigging as Ethiopian election gets underway

The Times of London
Mojo, Ethiopia

Ethiopians queue to cast their ballot in Mojo (Jerome Delay/AP)
Ethiopians queue to cast their ballot in Mojo (Jerome Delay/AP)

Soon after polling stations opened at 6am dozens of voters queued patiently in the morning light outside a school administration building in the crossroads town of Mojo, central Ethiopia.

Here and elsewhere in Africa’s second most populous country yesterday’s election got off to a calm and well-organised start, but opposition groups were quick to allege intimidation and irregularities.

In Mojo officers given the task of explaining the voting process to the people as they arrived at polling stations informed voters that all but one of the town’s candidates for the national parliamentary elections had withdrawn at the last minute.

“The only party is the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation,” Bekele Gurmu, the officer in charge of one station, said. OPDO is part of the Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, in power since 1991.

After listening to the announcement Hailu Gemechu, 45, a finance manager, was suspicious. “I don’t think the briefing is true; it could be cheating,” he said. Opposition leaders alleged that similar incidents were being reported elsewhere.

Negasso Gidada, a former president of Ethiopia and a member of Medrek, the opposition coalition, said: “I am hearing that electoral officials are telling voters that I have withdrawn from the election, that my party has withdrawn from the election.”

Mr Negasso insisted that his party’s candidate in Mojo had not pulled out. “It looks as if the EPRDF is rigging this election,” he said. Within hours of the poll beginning, Medrek, which is fielding 421 candidates for the 547-member parliament, said that it may reject the result.

Officials from the national electoral board did not answer calls but a ruling party spokesman denied that the EPRDF was trying to cheat to win the election. “If they reject the result before it’s declared, it means they know they have lost it squarely,” said Simon Bereket, a government spokesman.

At the last national poll in 2005 opposition supporters took to the streets to protest against what they said was a stolen election, and 193 protesters and seven policemen died in the ensuing violence. A crackdown followed in which opposition politicians, their supporters and journalists, were locked up.

Mr Meles’s Government has denied charges that it is growing more autocratic, stifles dissent and intimidates opponents. Final results are not expected until next month but electoral officials say that preliminary figures may be available as early as tomorrow. Mr Meles is widely expected to win a large majority of the 32 million votes.