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Fairness at Issue in Ethiopian Elections

More than 32 million Ethiopians will have a chance to elect a new parliament Sunday for the first time since the flawed 2005 poll that triggered violence. The campaign ended as it began, with opposition groups charging the electoral system is stacked against them.

This election for parliament is the fourth since the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front seized power in 1991.

Analysts agree the EPRDF is likely to retain the solid lock on power it has held for 19 years. But the opposition is raising questions about whether the results will reflect the people's will.

The 2005 elections ended tragically, as troops gunned down nearly 200 opposition activists protesting alleged vote rigging.

This campaign began with the main opposition coalition, Medrek, boycotting talks on an electoral code of conduct. Medrek leaders said the talks were useless unless the agenda included ensuring a level playing field, including the impartiality of the National Electoral Board.

The biggest opposition group to join the talks was the All Ethiopia Unity Party. Looking back, AUEP leader Hailu Shewal says it was a mistake not to demand safeguards on impartiality.

"My regret was not to insist on a change of management of the election board," said Hailu.

Opposition parties allege the board and its thousands of newly-hired staff and election observers are overwhelmingly ruling party supporters. Unity Party leader Hailu says the NEB ignores complaints of election irregularities.

"We have written so many letters. Nothing. No response. Zero. We took it to the council of parties. Answer, zero. Nothing concrete, only promises," said Hailu.

Electoral board chairman Merga Bekana strongly defends NEB procedures and says all complaints are thoroughly investigated. But he confirms almost all opposition allegations have been found to be baseless.

"We have handled all the complaints according to the law. We have given serious attention, whether it is minor or major. If it is true, the board immediately takes action. If it is unfounded accusation, we inform immediately, your application is groundless because of this," said Merga.

Opposition leaders say the ruling party's tactic in the final days before the election has been to terrify opposition poll workers. Unity party leader Hailu says in many rural districts, opposition workers have fled in fear, meaning thousands of far flung polling stations may have no opposition observers present when votes are counted.

"They are going to their houses in the middle of the night, shooting guns, scaring their children. Calling them and saying, you better get out of here, and sometimes going as far as beating, flogging. Denials are being thrown all around as usual, but I say no. facts are facts. You can't deny facts," said Hailu.

The ruling EPRDF'S spokesman Hailemariam Dessalegn calls the opposition allegations a sign of desperation.

"From our side we feel that's a sort of tactic to discredit the electoral process," said Hailemariam.

The European Union and the African Union have deployed more than 200 observers to monitor the voting. EU observation mission chief Thygs Berman says the impartiality of the election board will be a critical issue in evaluating the fairness of the vote.

"It is the behavior of the NEB is important, not a question whether someone is member or not of this or that party. The question is, is NEBE organizing, conducting these election in such a way that there is a fair chance for every candidate in every party," said Berman.

More than 43,000 polling stations will be open until 6 p.m. local time Sunday.

Official results will not be released until June 21, but officials say the outcome should be known by Monday.