Ethiopia's heated election campaign has spilled onto the floor of parliament, with bitter and at times personal exchanges between Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and opposition leaders. The prime minister was forced onto the defensive on issues from the economy to allegations of political dirty tricks.
With less than six weeks to go before elections for a new legislature, Prime Minister Meles used a nationally-broadcast speech to trumpet his government's achievements. He said the economy is expected to register double-digit growth for the seventh consecutive year, inflation has slowed to under four percent, and the number of Ethiopians needing food aid is less than predicted.
Speaking in Amharic with an interpreter, he hailed a newly adopted, legally-enforceable code of conduct that sets behavior standards for participants in the May 23 elections.
"Favorable conditions have been set for the conduct of elections which are peaceful, democratic and credible to the people," he said.
But when the floor was opened for opposition comments, Mr. Meles found himself facing a barrage of criticisms.
Merera Gudina, leader of a party representing Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, the Oromos, drew a rebuke from the house speaker for challenging the prime minister's economic figures.
The Oromo leader also charged the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front with rigging next month's elections through its control of the electoral machinery. He spoke in Amharic, but afterward summarized his remarks in English.
"The EPRDF is trying to be both the referee and a player. If you are both the referee and a player, who is going to win is clear from the beginning," said Gudina.
Ethiopian Democratic Party leader Lidetu Ayalew caused a stir when he charged ruling party officials in his devoutly Christian district were trying to discredit him by spreading false rumors he had converted to another religion.
Mr. Meles called such acts 'deplorable', and promised that if the charge turns out to be true, the 'disreputable elements' would be expelled from his party.
He accused the opposition of whipping up passions with inflammatory charges. Again through an interpreter, he warned party leaders not to boycott the vote, as happened during the 2008 local elections, saying it would be like starting a dangerous fire and walking away.
"If my estimation is correct, some of you are walking this direction," said the prime minister. "I think you are making a huge mistake because to light the fire and at the last [moment] to go into hiding, would not be good, because to light the fire and [be] behind it, and also to fight and use the blood of children, that would not be something that is useful," he said.
Officials said Tuesday's address was likely Prime Minister Meles's final speech in parliament before the May 23rd elections. Analysts say the ruling party is expected to easily retain control of the legislature.
Ruling party officials attribute the bright outlook to effective policies and an opposition in disarray. Opposition leaders say their poor prospects are the result of the ruling party's firm control of the electoral process.