A European Union exploratory team is visiting Ethiopia to determine whether to send an observer mission to monitor national elections in May. The election campaign has taken a negative turn amid questions about whether the vote would be fair.
A series of televised debates opened last week with a furious exchange among parties vying for seats in Ethiopia's parliament.
The ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front dominated the airtime, taking 67 minutes of the three-hour broadcast. Other parties were limited to 22 minutes each.
EPRDF representative Hailemariam Dessalegn used his time to launch a blistering attack on opposition parties, accusing them of being too weak and disorganized to govern.
Opposition leaders fired back, accusing the EPRDF of using its control of the electoral machinery to ensure victory for itself, making Ethiopia a virtual one-party state. Merera Gudina, who represented an eight party coalition known as the Forum, tells VOA the group will use the campaign to expose, what he calls, the government's anti-democratic tactics.
"They can rule us as dictators, but not falsely portraying their image as democrats," said Merera Gudina. "As far as they control the guns, they can rule us. But they cannot rule us by portraying that Ethiopia is enjoying democracy while we do not have any."
EPRDF representative Hailemariam says the ruling party favors multi-party democracy, but in a different sense than is commonly practiced in the west.
"Our system is a multi-party system," said Hailemariam Dessalegn. "Clearly a multi-party system, because we believe Ethiopia is multinational, multi-ethnic, multilingual and multi religious, so one party cannot represent all these differences, so multi party system is mandatory in Ethiopia."
Hailemariam attributes much of the criticism of Ethiopia's revolutionary democracy to a misunderstanding of the ruling party's philosophy.
"This is all because we do not follow the liberal democratic principles which the Western countries are pushing to follow," said Dessalegn. "That is why everyone is fighting us, and try to somehow criticize and disvalue whatever Ethiopia is doing."
The debate over Ethiopia's democratic credentials comes as a European Union mission is studying whether to accept the government's invitation to monitor the election.
It appears none of the major U.S. observer groups will be coming. The Carter Center has declined an invitation. The others, the Washington based International Foundation for Electoral Systems, National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, were not invited.
Thomas Vens, a member of the EU exploratory mission says the group will advise policy makers in Brussels about whether conditions exist in Ethiopia for a fair election.
"We are here as a standard practice to establish whether the conditions are in place for such a mission to take place," said Thomas Vens. "We are putting together facts relating to that and then a political decision on that basis of that report will be made to determine whether that would be appropriate or not."
Another major opposition leader, Hailu Shawel of the All Ethiopian Unity Party, worked with the EPRDF in drafting a code of conduct for the election. But he refused to take part in the multi-party debate, and is increasingly disillusioned about the prospects for a fair vote.
He tells VOA any foreign observer mission would face a huge task keeping track of what he calls systemic election-related mischief.
"They have to admit this is a difficult job," said Hailu Shawel. "So they have to have everywhere people and they can't trust anybody. Not one. Not trust us, not trust EPRDF. They lie, they cheat every day. So how can they observe an election and say anything when they know that all these funny things are happening in Ethiopia. How? I do not think so."
Hailu Shawel says unless there are some guarantees of a level playing field, his party may boycott the election.
"I do not want to complain after the election," said Shawel. "If there is no effective observation, there is no election. We will be the first ones to say, sorry, we don't trust the process."
The other main opposition grouping, the Forum, is taking a different approach to a possible boycott. Leaders say they see the election not as about winning seats, but about communicating with voters and building a support base.
Forum strategist Siye Abraha recalled the 2008 elections, when the opposition boycotted, allowing the EPRDF and its allies to sweep virtually every one of more than three million local and regional council seats.
The election is set for May 23 , but opposition leaders note results will only be announced in late June, while global attention is focused on World Cup Football (soccer) competition in South Africa.