|The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia chairman Kemal Bedri, left, greets former U.S. President Jimmy Carter|
Former President Jimmy Carter says he has not seen a pattern of pre-election misconduct by the Ethiopian ruling party, as charged by the opposition and some international observers. Mr. Carter arrived in Ethiopia Thursday to lead a 50-member delegation from the Atlanta-based Carter Center to observe Sunday's national and regional elections. The elections are being seen as a key test of Ethiopia's commitment to democracy.
President Carter spoke to reporters Friday, following talks with members of Ethiopia's National Election Board.
He says he is encouraged by the progress that Ethiopia has made toward embracing full democracy, which will help stabilize the volatile Horn of Africa region.
Sunday's parliamentary elections will be the third democratic ballot since the ruling party, led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, took power in Ethiopia in 1991 and the first to be monitored by international observers.
"Obviously, as President Bush has said many times, a demonstration of the highest quality of democracy and the right of the people to choose their own leaders and to shape the basic principles and attitudes of the government is the best prohibition against the spread of terrorism," Mr. Carter said.
Responding to reporters' questions about allegations that officials from the ruling party and coalition allies have killed, intimidated, harassed, and arrested opposition politicians and supporters in the run-up to the polls, Mr. Carter says he believes such incidents have been isolated and are not part of a deliberate campaign by the government to weaken the opposition.
"My best understanding at this point is that there is no pattern of intimidation or interference in the electoral procedures," he said.
Mr. Carter also defended the work of the National Election Board against accusations by the opposition and various civil society groups that the board is blatantly pro-government and has done little to promote a level playing field.
"My own personal opinion, on a very preliminary basis is that the National Election Board here is honest and fair," he said. "And I make that statement based on decisions that have been made, in treating the opposition with adequate opportunity to present their case to the public, to have public demonstrations of political support, to allocate television time to the ruling party and to opposition parties and to have an honest and fair registration process."
The Ethiopian government did hand-pick members for the National Election Board. But it says it only chose people who had proven track records for showing honesty and non-partisanship.
In a thinly veiled warning, however, the former U.S. leader also made clear that should the government try to prevent Ethiopians from holding a free and fair election on Sunday, he and his team of observers would not hesitate to denounce it.
"My personal integrity and the reputation of the Carter Center is at stake," he said. "And so, I intend to make an absolutely accurate and unbiased assessment after the election is over. In a few cases, we've declared the election to be illegitimate and we made the statement to the people of that nation and also to the international community and that's a very profound action for us to take. But we don't hesitate to do that should that occur."
The Carter Center is a non-governmental organization, which has monitored 60 elections worldwide.
On Sunday, its observers will join nearly 300 others from the European Union and other nations to monitor some of the 31,000 polling stations across the country.
Prime Minister Meles' Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front Party has won the two previous elections by overwhelming margins. The ruling party and its allies currently hold 519 of 548 seats in the federal parliament.