Ethiopia votes in election clouded by fraud fears

Inside an Ethiopian polling station

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Polls have closed in Ethiopia's first election since a 2005 contest which was marred by protests that led to the deaths of 200 people.

Voting was smooth and steady in the capital, Addis Ababa, but the opposition said there had been irregularities elsewhere in the country.

Officials have dismissed the claims.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a Western ally against militants in Somalia, is seeking re-election.

AT THE SCENE

Uduak Amimo

Students at Addis Ababa University began queuing an hour before the polls opened at 0600 local time.

There were separate lines for males and females and many more men turned out to vote. Students vote at seven polling stations, depending on which of the country's different regions they come from.

Most of the students at polling station six, where people from Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's home province of Tigray were voting, told me they were voting for peace, development and security. A few went further and told me they were voting for the governing EPRDF.

Most of the students at polling stations where Oromos and Amharas were voting told me they wanted change, but none of them would tell me which party they thought would deliver that. The opposition is expected to make some gains in these areas.

Ethiopia's electoral commission has until 21 June to declare the results.

Officials from the main opposition alliance, Medrek, said its agents had been blocked from observing the polls in the southern Oromia region where it is expected to make some gains.

"It doesn't look like an election, even by African standards," Medrek leader Merera Gudina told the AFP news agency.

"In some areas, we even heard that ballot boxes were opened and stuffed before the arrival of our people," he said, warning that he might reject the results.

"We'll review our assessment regarding the elections tomorrow. But one thing is for sure, all this cheating was done with millions of witnesses."

Allegations of electoral fraud by Mr Meles' governing Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front's (EPRDF) led to protests and deaths in 2005.

A government spokesman dismissed the latest claims, saying the opposition must already know it had lost.

The BBC's Will Ross in Addis Ababa says voting in the polling stations he visited in the capital appeared well organised, with a steady flow of voters.

Mr Meles is widely expected to be re-elected, with the opposition seen as divided and disorganised.

But after the events in 2005, our correspondent says the reputation of Africa's second most populous country is on the line.

As the prime minister flew to vote in his home area in the northern Tigray region, he told Reuters he was confident of victory because of his record.

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"Imagine a government which has delivered double-digit growth rates for over seven years losing an election anywhere on earth. It is unheard of for such a phenomenon to happen," he said.

There were thousands of local observers spread out across the country although some in the opposition do not see them as neutral.

The Ethiopian government banned foreign embassy staff from monitoring the poll. It did not see them as experts on elections and said it did not want diplomatic relations blurred.

The European Union had 170 observers on the ground - a relatively large number which our correspondent says shows how important the EU takes his event.

Chief EU observer Thijs Berman said he had heard the opposition complaints but he had not "seen anything that would inspire any anxiety".

Some rights activists dismissed the elections as a charade months ago, saying the government had muzzled the media and was effectively blacklisting opposition supporters.

The governing party dismissed such talk as propaganda.

Some 32 million people were registered to elect the 547 members of the lower House of Representatives, along with regional councillors who in turn choose the upper house of parliament.

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