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EU: Ethiopian Election Unbalanced

A crowd is dancing away from a pro-government rally, where they carried signs saying, "We have spoken!" and "Don't second guess us!" Tens of thousands of people wave flags, sing and dance. They said they came out against a report released by Human Rights Watch on Monday, which condemned the Ethiopian national elections, calling them an "orderly facade."

The event in Addis Ababa's main square was billed as a spontaneous demonstration of love for the government, and hatred for the rights group's cultural imperialism. But it turned out to be a well-planned and meticulously controlled victory party.

Tens of thousands of party faithful packed the square by the time Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi took the stage.

VOA's Peter Heinlein discusses the situation with Ashenafi Abedje (English to Africa):

Mr. Meles acknowledges the votes for the recent national elections have not been fully tallied, but says, "This victory will make us proud."

His Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front has ruled the country since it overthrew the previous government in 1991. He has easily won three previous elections. Early counts suggest his party is leading in every province in the country, and in the capital it appears to have won almost all of the 23 seats.

Opposition parties swept the capital in the last legislative election five years ago, winning all 23 seats. But after the ruling party was declared overall winner, nationwide protesters took to the streets claiming fraud, and almost 200 people were killed. More than 100 opposition leaders, journalists and activists were arrested, and while most were pardoned in 2007, some leaders still live in exile or remain in jail.

EU Chief Observer Thijs Berman says this year's elections have been relatively peaceful, and the voting process was well-planned and safe. But his preliminary report states the election was marred by a "lack of level playing field", which favored the ruling party.

Berman also says the ruling party used government resources for campaign purposes, had unfair access to the state-run media, and blocked other news sources, such as VOA broadcasts. And without a national voting list, he said, it is impossible to detect certain kinds of fraud, like double-voting.

"These shortcomings lead us to the conclusion that this electoral process falls short of certain international principles, certain international commitments," said Berman.

Opposition parties and Human Right's Watch complain that even if all parties had equal access to resources and the media, repression, violence, and harassment tainted and "undermined" the vote.

Berman did not condemn the Ethiopian election process, but said the "sheer volume" of complaints was a concern. He said Ethiopians are often afraid to speak openly to authorities, so the legitimacy of the threat is hard to assess.

"People are very cautious to express their opinion. People are very cautious who is listening when they speak with you, not to make mistakes, etc.," said Berman.

The Ethiopian government has not yet responded to the EU report, but it dismissed Human Right's Watch's complaints, calling them "baseless." A press release said the group is trying to, "play the role of a king maker on the continent." Election officials say opposition parties have not formally complained about voter intimidation.

And while the formal election results will not be out until next month, EU and Ethiopian officials are already predicting a massive turnout - some say higher than 90 percent. Berman says he cannot yet say if the elections results will be deemed credible by the international organization. But, he says, "We're not finished yet."