Ethiopia's main opposition bloc says it is being prevented from registering observers to witness vote-counting in this month's elections for parliament. The integrity of the ballot-counting process is shaping up as a key area of contention as the campaign heads into its final week.
Senior opposition member Bulcha Demeksa says there may be no representative of his Medrek coalition on hand at thousands of polling stations across Ethiopia when the votes are counted on election day.
Nationwide, 43,000 stations will be open to handle an estimated 31 million registered voters.
As the deadline passed for registering poll watchers Friday, Bulcha said local election officials in many rural areas had denied Medrek's applicants. "Harassment caused by the election officer at the locality is one of our biggest problems. They don't take our observers. They have reasons to say we don't accept... Anybody, even if (it is) the candidate himself, (saying) please accept this man, he is my observer, they don't," he said.
Bulcha says the lack of opposition poll watchers means that in many places, only people chosen by Ethiopia's ruling EPRDF might be in the room when the votes are counted. "Medrek has been complaining since about two months that the public ballot counters, the government has handpicked 200,000 of them. Many of them were party cadres. The government, the party, EPRDF may be very honest about it, the local government officials may be honest about it. (But) I may not interfere with the counting of the ballots. So we are left in their hands," he said.
National Election Board spokesman Mohamed Abdulrahman says he has not heard of candidates being denied the opportunity to register their poll watchers. In a telephone interview, he said the charge would be thoroughly investigated. "I hope nobody is going to prevent them from registering poll watchers. That is their right. On the law, they can register and put in place poll watchers on every polling station, and nobody can prevent them from doing this. And even if it happens, the board will automatically take measures to correct that," he said.
A total of about 250 observers from the European Union and African Union are fanning out across Ethiopia to monitor the election proceedings. One observer, who asked for anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly, said a sampling of randomly selected polling stations would be used in determining the integrity of the vote-counting process.
Voting takes place May 23, and election officials say for the most part the counting will be done by hand that evening. Results will be announced nearly a month later, on June 21.