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Ethiopians Vote Amid Opposition Charges of Widespread Fraud

Ethiopian Orthodox priest, left, lines up with others to vote at a polling station in Addis Ababa
Millions of voters in Ethiopia are choosing between a powerful government which has close ties to the West but is considered by some to be totalitarian, and a coalition of little-known opposition parties that has promised greater political freedom and economic development. The democratic ballot is only the third in the country's history and is seen as a key test to Ethiopia's commitment to democracy.

A small crowd of supporters enthusiastically greeted Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, as he arrived at the polling station in Adwa, located about 25 kilometers east of the ancient city of Axum.

Mr. Meles did not address the crowd. But he told reporters he believes the national elections represented an important milestone in Ethiopia's quest to become a full-fledged democratic state.

"I fought to make sure the Ethiopian people have the right to make their decisions," he said. "I am now exercising it as an Ethiopian and I am very proud of our achievement."

Adwa is the birthplace of the prime minister, who is seeking his third, five-year term in office. In the 14 years his ruling party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, has been in power it has never had its power challenged in this mostly poor, subsistence farming region.

The party was the only one listed on the ballot paper in Adwa.

The ruling party says none of the major opposition parties bothered to register and campaign for votes in this remote area. But opposition leaders say electoral officials, whom the opposition accuses of being pro-government, would not allow their parties to register or campaign in the area.

The accusation is just one of numerous complaints of irregularity the opposition has lodged.

Casting his vote in an opposition stronghold south of the capital Addis Ababa, the head of Ethiopia's opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy, Hailu Shawel, says in his opinion, the balloting has not been the model of democracy that people had hoped for.

"I think disaster is looming. Everywhere there is fraud being perpetrate," said Mr. Shawel. "The marker that they [the voters] were given, it washes off even without water. In other areas, they mark ballot papers with EPDRF signs and giving to people to put in the ballot boxes. And the people are fighting back, saying, 'No, we are not going to do that. Give us the clean paper.' So, the whole process is really jeopardized at the moment."

The government denies that it has been trying to prevent a fair vote, noting that the opposition received unprecedented access to state-owned media and were given permission to stage mass demonstrations ahead of the ballot.

For the first time, more than 300 international observers, including 150 from the European Union and 50 from the U.S.-based Carter Center, are in Ethiopia to monitor the elections. They fanned out before dawn to visit some of the 31,000 polling stations set up throughout the country.

The observers say they will investigate reports of any irregularities, but most say they have not seen any serious problems, largely calling the polls honest and fair.

Final results are not expected until early June.

In previous elections held in 1995 and 2000, the ruling EPRDF won by overwhelming margins, giving the party a solid majority in parliament.

About 25 million of Ethiopia's 71 million people are registered to vote. The elections are being closely watched in the West as a key test of Ethiopia's commitment to democracy and being a stabilizing force in the volatile Horn of Africa region.