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Ethiopian Opposition Leader Faces Fierce Ruling Party Challenge

Ethiopian opposition leader Merera Gudina (File)
Ethiopian opposition leader Merera Gudina (File)

Merera Gudina is one of Ethiopia's best known opposition political figures. The outspoken Oromo nationalist is a respected author, professor, member of parliament, and a founder of Medrek, which is mounting a furious challenge to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's ruling party in Sunday's elections. But in Merera's hometown of Ambo, in western Ethiopia, the ruling party is responding with its own challenge to the challenger.

Doctor Merera, as he is known, is a fearless campaigner. At rally after rally across Oromia, Ethiopia's largest region, he openly accuses Prime Minister Meles of having already stolen Sunday's elections for parliament.

He likens Mr. Meles to Africa's worst dictators.

"If Meles's interest is to cling to power at all cost, like all African dictators from [Central Africa Republic's Jean-Bedel] Bokassa to [Uganda's] Idi Amin to [Ethiopia's] Mengistu Hailemariam, he can continue the game, and Meles can take the country down with him. Winning elections without public support, winning elections by cheating people, winning elections by fraud really should end in Africa," he said.

Merera raised a storm of protest when he accused officials of Oromia's ruling party of beating to death a Medrek worker. A government spokesman called him a liar, saying evidence showed the dead man died of cancer, and had in fact been a member of the ruling party. The facts of the case remain in dispute.

Days later, Communications Minister Bereket Simon told reporters three card-carrying Medrek members been been arrested for killing a police officer in Oromia and had implicated Dr. Merera.

"They have told that...a subordinate to Dr. Merera has ordered them to take this punitive measure, and that same person has ensured the alleged perpetrators to be confident that Dr. Merera will talk and make sure that they are released," said Simon.

Medrek officials say they fear Dr. Merera and other outspoken opposition leaders could land in jail once the election is over.

At a recent news conference, Prime Minister Meles warned that anyone violating a legally binding electoral code of conduct during the campaign could be prosecuted later.

"We prefer to look the other way during the election contest, in the interest of a smooth election contest. If need be, we can come back to those crimes committed during the election, after the election. I hope it does not intimidate anybody," said the prime miinister.

Dr. Merera easily won the parliamentary seat from his hometown of Ambo five years ago. This time, he says he feels like an outsider.

The local government is tightly controlled by the ruling party, which has put up a formidable challenger. Yohannes Mituku is not only also an Ambo native, he is also the powerful administrator of the Ambo district, and a sitting member of parliament. He says his strong record of achievement makes him the favorite.

"I will defeat him due to my political program, due to the development activities that we have undertaken last five years that emanates from our political program," said Mituku.

Dr. Merera's rallies draw passionate supporters, but they are mostly men under the age of 25. He says older people don't dare reveal their true beliefs in a society where support for the opposition could affect job opportunities and access to food and fertilizer subsidies.

As if to confirm his suspicion, security police and national intelligence service agents are in clear evidence outside the gate, taking pictures with cellphones and checking the IDs of journalists.

But looking out on the swarms of excited young supporters, Dr. Merera says even a defeat at the polls Sunday would be a victory for future change in Ethiopia.

"The last three, four, five days is encouraging," he said. "Whatever happens to me is irrelevant. I have contributed to the future of this country. Whether Meles is going to rule us for the next 5 years or more, millions of young people are on the move to change their lives, and I hope I have contributed to that," said Merera Gudina.

There is no reliable data on which candidate might have the edge. Both say they expect to win easily in a fair election.

Vote counting begins at 43,000 polling stations as soon as the polls close Sunday evening. National Elections Board officials said the outcome should be clear by Monday, barring any unforeseen circumstances.