By JASON McLURE
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (NYT)— Ethiopians went to the polls on Sunday to choose a new Parliament, with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling party expected to sweep the vote and extend its 19-year rule, after a campaign marred by widespread complaints of harassment and intimidation of the opposition.
Leaders from Medrek, the largest opposition coalition, and the smaller All Ethiopia Unity Party, said the government had threatened to withhold American food aid from farmers in poor regions and barred opposition supporters from government microfinance programs in an effort to win votes. They also accused the government of blocking opposition monitors from observing voting in several areas of the country as a prelude to rigging results.
“The whole thing is a farce,” said Hailu Shawel, chairman of the All Ethiopia Unity Party. “In the countryside our observers are chased away by the militia. Our people are not allowed into the polling stations.”
Medrek opposition leaders have reported that three of their activists were killed during the campaign and hundreds more beaten and arrested.
The government has responded by accusing the opposition of fabricating allegations of irregularities and harassment in order to undermine the election. “The whole objective has been to discredit the process; that’s why they are crying wolf,” said Bereket Simon, a senior ruling party official and minister of communication affairs for the government. “We’ve prepared in a very clear and transparent way. We have also told our members that the ruling party doesn’t need any force or fraud to win this election.”
Thijs Berman, the chief of a European Union election observation mission, estimated that turnout was greater than 70 percent and that Election Day had passed peacefully. He said his team was investigating opposition complaints of irregularities and would release a report on the pre-election period on Tuesday.
An electoral sweep by the ruling party is likely to heighten strains between Mr. Meles and the Obama administration. The United States gave Ethiopia, an ally in fighting Islamic extremists in neighboring Somalia, more than $937 million in direct aid last year, much of it to help feed Ethiopians who depend on foreign food assistance to survive.
In spite of this, Mr. Meles’s government has jammed local-language news broadcasts by the United States government-owned Voice of America radio service and barred American and other foreign diplomats from traveling outside Addis Ababa, the capital, to monitor the vote.
People are afraid to openly support the opposition for fear of losing out on government services such as housing, said Getaneh Asfaw, 33, a manager at an Addis Ababa real estate company who said he voted for Medrek in spite of threats from local officials and ruling party supporters.
“If you are building a house, they will find a reason to stop you,” he said, in an interview outside a voting station in Addis Ababa, as a woman who identified herself as a local government official hovered nearby. “Even me, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me after this interview.”