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Disputed Election Raises Questions About Ethiopia's Future

Post-election violence in Ethiopia has left many Ethiopians and foreign observers questioning whether or not the country is returning to the dictatorship of the late 1970s and 1980s.

Early this week, Ethiopian police shot and killed a newly elected opposition member of parliament.

Several opposition officials were held briefly under house arrest even as they were negotiating a yet-to-be-implemented agreement with the government to address irregularities and other complaints arising from the May 15 elections.

Meanwhile, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi extended for another month a ban on all demonstrations, which he imposed May 15.

These are some of the latest developments in a month that has seen clashes between police and demonstrators, during which more than 30 people were killed and scores injured. The clashes were accompanied by the arrests of thousands of opposition members and supporters.

Preliminary results indicate a victory for the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which the opposition and others have accused of massive vote rigging and fraud.

Birhanu Tsigu is head of investigations at the Ethiopian Human Rights Council. He says he fears a bleak future for his country unless something is done now to stop the violence.

"And if these kinds of things are going to continue, there may be a regression to that kind of situation which the country has experienced in the past,” he said.

The memory of the former regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was Ethiopia's leader from 1977 to 1991, is still fresh in the minds of many Ethiopians.

Mengistu was chairman of the Dergue, which means "committee" or "council" in Amharic. From 1977 to early 1978, thousands of suspected enemies of the Dergue were tortured and killed in a campaign called the "red terror."

Communism was officially adopted by the late 1970s, and Mengistu's government continued to stamp out government dissent.

In press reports covering this month's unrest, several people old enough to remember were quoted as saying they feared the return of that dictatorship-type system, while the government maintained that it was the opposition inciting and carrying out the violence.

Some observers feel it is too early to tell whether or not the current situation will lead to the return of the dictatorship past.

A senior lecturer on the Horn of Africa at the University of South Africa in Pretoria, Iqbal Jhazbhay, says the Ethiopian government's actions are mostly an inappropriate response to a strong and unexpected performance by the opposition in the elections.

"My feeling is that they [the government] didn't anticipate this type of victory and were not really prepared to respond to it with a type of adequacy required, though they were prepared for the elections to be a bit more open," Mr. Jhazbhay noted.

International Crisis Group analyst Matt Bryden agrees that the government was caught off guard by the large gains the opposition made during the election.

The government, he says, was also surprised at the underlying dynamics of this election, which is the third since the ruling coalition (EPRDF) took power in 1991.

"The EPRDF is basically a front that liberated the country in 1991. This has been the first real opportunity for political pluralism to emerge and, of course, after 14 years people are tired of what has effectively been a one-party rule. Many people are looking for change," said Mr. Bryden.

Mr. Bryden says Ethiopia's long-term stability will depend on how transparent and effective investigations into election irregularities will be, and how the government will relate to the opposition.

The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia is currently investigating irregularities in 299 constituencies, and is expected to announce final election results July 8.

The United States Monday issued a statement condemning what it called "the unnecessary use of excessive force" by Ethiopian security forces.

It urged the government to respect the rule of law, international principles of human rights, and due process for those arrested. The opposition, said the statement, should abide by the rule of law and commit to end the violence.