Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa, is preparing to hold the country's third democratic election in 14 years to select a new parliament. Previous elections have been overwhelmingly dominated by the four-party coalition that has ruled Ethiopia since 1991. But as VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from the capital, Addis Ababa, this year's elections are fielding the strongest opposition alliance yet to challenge the power of the government.
The small township of Dukem, about 35 kilometers south of Addis Ababa, was the site Thursday for a large political rally in support of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front party and its close ally in government, the Oromo Democratic People's Organization.
Hundreds of ethnic Oromo students, waving Ethiopian flags, scrambled down from several dozen buses and trucks, which had transported them here from nearby villages. On a grassy field, they joined Oromo farmers, housewives and other supporters in singing the government's praises.
"I support the government because it has given us land to farm and has opened many schools for children," a 20-year-old student told VOA.
But the young man, like most people at the rally, declined to be identified.
A local worker for a non-governmental aid organization (NGO) in Addis Ababa, says he is not surprised by the man's desire to remain anonymous.
The NGO worker, who only identifies himself as Belayneh, says for weeks, the government has been using intimidation tactics to force Ethiopians to publicly support the ruling coalition. Mr. Belayneh says he believes many people who participate in pro-government rallies are not real supporters and they may be feeling ashamed.
"Definitely. The people, they are forced to go out and support the government. They fear that they may lose their jobs if they are not going out in support," he explained.
Other allegations of pre-election misconduct by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's ruling EPRDF party and its coalition allies have been widely reported ahead of Sunday's elections, in which more than 25 million of Ethiopia's 71 million people are expected to vote.
Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that the leader of the 150 European Union election observers in Ethiopia sent the National Election Board a letter, protesting against the government's use of hate speech and using the state-owned media to show attack ads, comparing opposition leaders to fascist dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
The European Union's chief observer, Ana Gomes, also expressed concern about the numerous reports of government-incited violence, harassment, and intimidation in the run-up to the polls.
One of Ethiopia's two main opposition groups is the four-party Coalition for Unity and Democracy. The chairman of CUD's election campaign, Birhanu Nega, says the government crackdown against his group did not start until about a month ago.
"I think they started with the general presumption, 'We have a very weak opposition. No matter what they do, we're going to win in any case. It's just a matter of the size of the victory.' What they began to see about a month ago was that a significant portion of the population is not with them. They saw this in the rally, the masses of people that came out in support of the opposition. I think they started to feel that it is not as clear and simple as they had initially believed," he said.
In elections held five years ago, the ruling party garnered 97 percent of the vote.
Last Sunday, a CUD-organized rally shocked the government, drawing more than 250,000 people to the capital in the largest pro-opposition gathering since Prime Minister Meles' rebel movement overthrew the country's Marxist regime in 1991.
Demonstrators at the rally said that they came to call for a political change and to support opposition promises to fight poverty and to promote economic growth through land reforms.
Many rural peasants, who make up 85 percent of the population in Ethiopia, partly blame the country's chronic food shortages and persistent poverty on a policy that gives the government ownership of all land. The present system, they say, gives them little incentive to invest in land and to produce crops.
Government officials vehemently defend their record, insisting that they have been doing their best to raise living standards for all Ethiopians, especially women.
As one of several females holding prominent posts in government, Ethiopia's Minister of State, Netsanet Asfaw, says the government has received virtually no credit for its effort in educating women and for bringing them into the work force and into positions of power.
"People make mistakes and when they make mistakes, criticize them. But when they do good, recognize that as well," she noted. "Nobody ever raises [the fact] that the ruling party has 30 percent women candidates for the federal level and 50 percent women for the regional level. They are a very important part of the development strategy. You cannot leave half of the Ethiopian society behind and overcome poverty. Therefore, women have to be a part and parcel of the development process. They have to be at the decision-making level in great numbers."
Ms. Netsanet says the government also rejects charges that it is not committed to holding transparent, democratic elections, noting that this year's ballot will be conducted under the watchful eyes of the international community.
For the first time, the government has accredited more than 300 international observers from the European Union, the United States, the African Union, the Arab League, India, Japan, China, Turkey and Russia to observe some of the 31,000 polling stations that have been set up throughout the country.
Still, critics of the government say that last month's expulsion of three U.S.-based pro-democracy organizations from Ethiopia, on charges that they were operating in the country illegally, has further cast a shadow over the electoral process.
One Ethiopian political analyst, who declined to be identified, says he believes there is a good reason for the ruling coalition, which controls an overwhelming majority of seats in Parliament, to worry about the outcome of the balloting.
He says with the opposition's popularity strengthening, free and fair elections could see that majority shrink significantly.