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Ethiopia to Vote for New Parliament Sunday

Ethiopians are heading to the polls Sunday today to elect a parliament for the first time since the flawed 2005 election that led to violence. Election officials are predicting a fair election, while opposition parties complain of widespread irregularities.

National Electoral Board members say they expect a record 27 million Ethiopians to vote in this contest for seats in the 547 member parliament. But a random poll on the streets of Addis Ababa suggests a lack of interest. Many said they had not registered.

One young man, who gave his name only as Tadesse, showed the palm of his hand to indicate he supports the main opposition alliance, Medrek. But he said he would stay home while the polls are open because his vote is meaningless.

"I have no choice," Tadesse said. "This is a dictator government."

The campaign was marred by the deaths of one candidate and several other political activists, but officials are hoping security improvements made since 2005 will prevent violence on election day and in the weeks after.

The 2005 vote ended in tragedy when troops shot down opposition supporters protesting alleged vote rigging. 193 protestors and seven police officers died.

The chief of a 180-strong European Union observer mission, Thygs Berman, says memories of the 2005 violence may be responsible for the lack of voter enthusiasm.

"What you see is perhaps a bit less energy in the campaign than five years ago. I think that all parties are concerned that a repetition of the violence of 2005 should not happen," Berman said.

On the eve of the election, National Electoral Board chairman Merga Bekana tried to quell widespread concerns of vote rigging. Opposition groups are complaining their supporters are being blocked from registering to observe the Sunday night vote counting process at thousands of polling places, opening the way for ruling party mischief.

Merga said he had ordered polling station chiefs to allow opposition observers in, whether they had been able to register or not.

"They complained that they were denied the right of participating by some officers in some limited polling stations," Merga said said. "That was a confusion, and that was solved."

Opposition leaders scoffed at Merga's election-eve edict, saying it would have no effect on the behavior of election officials in far flung regions of the mostly rural country.

Medrek co-founder Siye Abraha, running in the remote northern Tigray region, tells VOA police had detained the leader of his observer team Saturday night and chased other team members away.

Siye, a former Ethiopian defense minister now leading a challenge to the ruling party said, "if I can't get my observers in place, all my effort and investment in the campaign will be nullified'.

Siye said a scheduled visit by European Union observers earlier in the week was cancelled when Ethiopian armed forces staged a live fire exercise in the area. The nearest observer team is in Axum, a three-hour drive away from Siye's constituency.

The European Union has a team of 180 observers charged with monitoring irregularities at Ethiopia's 43,000 polling stations. Chief observer Berman was not immediately available for comment about the alleged Tigray incident.

A widely-predicted ruling party victory would give Prime Minister Meles Zenawi another five year term, ensuring that he would remain as Ethiopia's leader for nearly a quarter of a century. His Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front seized power in a 1991 coup.