ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopia’s ruling party says it will win a resounding victory in Sunday’s national elections, thanks to sustained economic development in the Horn of Africa nation that has reduced poverty and improved infrastructure.
The opposition admits it has little chance of victory, but says that’s because the ruling party of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has tightened its grip on power since the last election in 2005 and routinely intimidates and harasses critics.
In 2005, an opposition coalition challenged the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) victory and riots broke out in the capital. Security forces killed 193 protesters and seven policemen died.
Analysts say the EPRDF is desperate to avoid a repeat that could damage the reputation of Meles on the international stage and has been stifling opposition across the country through the security apparatus and local government officials.
The main opposition challenge this time comes from a coalition of eight parties from across regional and ethnic lines, united chiefly in their desire to drive out the EPRDF.
There has been little debate about policies ahead of the poll, seen almost as a referendum on the nearly 20-year rule of Meles and the EPRDF, a period that has brought stability and economic development after years of brutal dictatorship.
“This is not a sensational election, not an exciting one like we’ve seen in Africa over the last couple of years,” said Mehane Tadesse, an economist and editor.
“There is a kind of sensible silence, mainly in the capital city. Partly because the results are more or less known and then the past is also very heavy, particularly the memory of the last elections,” he said.
Ethiopia still depends on Western donors to give emergency food aid to nearly 10 percent of the population, but the government has invested heavily in new roads, power and water supplies and education.
“Because of our development works regarding governance, regarding social development, the people of Ethiopia know for sure that the future of Ethiopia lies with this government so there is no incentive for us to compete in a non-democratic way,” said Bereket Simon, the government head of information.
But while the capital Addis Ababa has been calm, tension has been running high in two regions — the opposition stronghold of Oromia and Tigray, where Meles is facing a challenge in his backyard for the first time.
Oromia is home to the Oromo, Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group with 27 million out of 80 million people. The area also produces most of the coffee in Africa’s biggest grower, along with oil seeds, sesame and livestock, all key exports.
Oromia is seen by analysts as essential to the future of sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous nation, a country that is Washington’s main ally in the region and a growing destination for foreign direct investment.
Both sides say they have been the victim of politically motivated killings there in the past four weeks and security forces have stepped up patrols in Oromia.
Foreign diplomats have been banned from leaving the capital without permission from the authorities until after the vote.
In Tigray, the ruling party is facing a challenge from former members who have differed with Meles over economic policy and how to deal with arch-rival Eritrea.
Western allies of Ethiopia, who see the secular country as a crucial bulwark against growing militant Islamism in Somalia, have been pushing for a more democratic election this time and hope behind-the-scenes pressure will pay off.
But opposition leaders say they fear there will be a clamp down once the EPRDF has secured another 5-year mandate.
“How can the government have victory? Victory presupposes competition. Victory in Ethiopia simply means vote rigging and a fraudulent election,” Beyene Petros, the current chairman of Medrek, told reporters this week.