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Ethiopian Election Draws Record Turnout; Opposition Charges Fraud

Ethiopian officials say a record number of voters have gone to the polls in an election expected to give Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's ruling party a huge majority in parliament. Opposition leaders charge the vote has been compromised.

As results began pouring in, ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front spokesman Hailemariam Dessalegn cautiously predicted a turnout of up to 90 percent of the country's 32 million voters.

"We have not got information from remote areas, but until now we know it is more than 80 percent," he said.

But, when asked about how it looked in Addis Ababa?

"Above 90 percent, but even in the rural areas we can reach above 90 percent," he said.

Analysts predict an overwhelming EPRDF victory that would hand Prime Minister Meles Zenawi another five-year term, possibly with more than the two-thirds majority he commands in parliament. Preliminary results are expected Monday.

But opposition parties allege widespread and systematic cheating, especially in remote areas where observation is difficult. Former Ethiopian president Negasso Gidada, now a leader of the main opposition coalition known as Medrek, says in thousands of precincts, his observers were denied access to the voting and counting process.

"We say the election took place without our observation, and that means if our observers have not participated, the voting day has been compromised," he said.

Hailu Shewal, leader of the All Ethiopia Unity Party went further. He said reports from his party's field workers indicated a 'disastrous situation', with opposition observers forced to flee in many places, and ruling party cadres marching voters into the voting booths and watching to see how they voted.

The 74-year-old veteran political leader said he is disgusted at the extent of the rigging, and vowed to quit politics.

"I am not participating in a ridiculous election. Never again," he said. "Maybe people think I am committing suicide, but politics is not my life. I am not in the business of cheating."

The European Union and the African Union had about 240 observers spread across the country monitoring activities at 43,000 polling stations. After the polls closed, chief EU observer Thygs Berman called the election 'peaceful and quiet', but acknowledged there had been complaints of vote rigging.

"It is about of course the technical errors. But there are more," Berman said. "There are complaints by political parties, there are complaints by candidates. We will see in the coming hours and days how we shall evaluate these complaints."

Berman said he had heard no reports of election-related violence.

Opposition leaders said despite the possibility of a crushing defeat they would not call their supporters into the streets to protest.

The last election for parliament, in 2005, ended in violence when police shot demonstrators protesting alleged ruling party vote rigging. At least 193 protesters and seven police officers died.