Eight Ethiopian opposition groups are accusing Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's ruling party of using its control of the government to systematically crush opponents ahead of next year's national elections. The eight groups say that negotiations between the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, and other opposition parties are ignoring the most important issues.
The eight opposition groups, calling themselves the Forum, say an electoral Code of Conduct signed by the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front and three other opposition parties fails to ensure the vote will be fair.
The head of one of the Forum members, Beyene Petros, says they want to engage the EPRDF in bilateral talks about what he calls "breaking the ruling party's stranglehold on the electoral machinery." "These are our specific issues - desist from the illicit use of EPRDF membership as a pre-condition for job opportunities; respect for the rule of law by the EPRDF and its government, for example, put an immediate end to all extra legal imprisonment. Free all political prisoners. Make EPRDF officials and cadres accountable for the breach of the law of the land, prevent interference in the election process, separate government and ruling party functions," Petros said.
Last week, opposition parties issued a list of 450 of their members who have been jailed to keep them from running as candidates in parliamentary elections set for May.
Petros says the EPRDF must agree to end its tactics of "coercion and intimidation". "Now they have started imprisoning our regional representatives. We are getting calls from police stations, and we are calling this government and the ruling party to come back to its senses. This kind of petty tactics will not work," Petros said.
Government and ruling party officials dismiss the Forum's allegations. In a telephone interview, EPRDF spokesman Hailemariam Dessalegn accused the forum of injecting hatred into the campaign. "This is hate politics. Hate politics will not bring this country to a democratic process. So you should avoid all hate politics and come together," he said.
Hailemariam rejected the allegation that opposition party members are being arrested to keep them from running in next year's elections.
He said the Forum is welcome to raise that and other issues in inter-party talks that now include 68 of Ethiopia's 92 political parties. "We were asking them several times to come to the negotiation table they are always boycotting. Not once - four or five times. I think the problem is just allegation. They haven't brought to EPRDF issues with evidence. And we still urge them and beg them to come into the discussion. And whatever problem they have, we are ready to discuss with them," he said.
Ethiopia has a history of election-related violence, and it has never had a democratic transition of power. The 2005 vote was marred by the killings of nearly 200 demonstrators who took to the streets to protest alleged fraud by the ruling party.
Prime Minister Meles has pledged to make the 2010 elections peaceful. He is reported to have dramatically strengthened security forces to keep order.