Ethiopians voted in elections Sunday that are expected to give the ruling EPRDF party another five-year hold on power. There were no reports of election-related violence and African Union observers said the voting was "orderly."
The voting lines formed well before sunrise in Addis Ababa on Sunday. People thronged to polling stations set up in tents, public halls and schools across this rapidly growing city of more than 3 million residents.
It is the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. But critics say little has changed since Meles' death — his party is again heavily slated to win, and the opposition says the government has maintained its heavy-handed repressive tactics, making this election a non-event.
Meles’ successor, mild-mannered former academic Hailemariam Desalegn, went to his rural village in southern Ethiopia to vote. Hailemariam’s party recently voted to observe two term limits for prime minister, meaning that if he wins, this could be his final term.
But the winner of this poll is all but certain: the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has ruled since 1991 after taking power in a coup against the former Marxist government. Opposition parties won only a single seat in parliament during the last elections five years ago.
In the capital, construction worker Tageyn Waza, 30, listed her job as a construction worker and the rapid pace of development as her reasons to support the EPRDF.
“Nice, very nice. Good, this government. Nice, good, all nice,” she said.
But across town, a university student who asked to only be identified by her first name, Meron, echoed claims by opposition parties that the playing field is slanted toward the ruling party.
Members of the nation’s small, underfunded opposition parties have repeatedly complained of harassment, arrests and unfair treatment. Only one foreign observer mission is watching this poll, the African Union.
“The ruling party has been monopolizing the media and, I don’t know, even when they were trying to raise awareness of what they are, they had more power, more influence," said Meron. "The other parties weren’t given that much time. They started basically, when we heard about Semayawi [the Blue Party] and Medrek [another opposition party], we just heard in the past two, three weeks what they were planning on doing. I think the ruling party just monopolized the entire vote, the entire election.”
A ruling party poll observer who identified himself only as "A. Abdelkafur" praised the vote.
“This election is perfect: democratic, fair, and so far it is going very smoothly,” he said.
But below that smooth surface lie troubled waters. A 2009 anti-terrorism law has led to the arrest and long-term imprisonment of dozens of journalists who were openly critical of the government. Many others have fled into exile or say they have resorted to self-censorship.
Supreme Court Judge Dagne Melaku offered praise for Sunday’s national election. He is the same judge who dismissed an appeal seeking the overturn of an 18-year prison sentence for award-winning journalist Eskinder Nega.
“Really, it’s free. Okay? There is no problem,” he said.
VOA News approached numerous voters with a video camera, in an attempt to seek a variety of political views. Some voters actually ran away.
Initial results are expected later this week. Final results are expected June 22.
VOA reporter Marthe van der Wolf contributed to this report from Addis Ababa.