Eight Ethiopian opposition parties and two prominent independent politicians are joining forces to try to unseat Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government in next year's elections.  But the coalition is complaining they have no chance under current rules.

Ethiopia's 2010 election campaign roared to life this week as the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front chose  Prime Minister Meles as its leader for another five years.  The EPRDF has held power since its forerunner, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front ousted a Marxist dictator in a bloodless coup 18 years ago.

Most political analysts say the decision of the ruling party's central committee practically ensures Mr. Meles will remain in office through 2015.

But a collection of opposition groups, joined by two of Mr. Meles's former close allies, is demanding changes in the electoral rules to ensure the vote is fair.  The coalition, calling itself the Forum for Democratic Dialogue, is asking for measures to ensure the impartiality of the electoral commission, greater access to the state-run media, and the presence of international observers.

Beyene Petros leads one faction of the Forum.  He points to local council elections held last year, in which opposition candidates won only three of more than three-and-one-half-million contested seats, as evidence of the lack of a level playing field.

"We have [the] bitter experience of last year's local and bi-elections where the opposition parties were totally blocked from fielding candidates, and doing their constitutional privilege of conducting campaign within the population," he said.  "So we have challenged [the] ruling party to negotiate the upcoming electoral landscape."

Another Forum member, Bulcha Demeksa, a leader of a party representing Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, the Oromos, said EPRDF officials are arresting opposition politicians and producing, what he says are, fake documents linking them to outlawed Oromo rebel groups.

"EPRDF cadres ...  simply find all kinds of excuses to put people in jail," he said.  "One of the most interesting ways is when they go to search the house of a potential candidate, they take with them a piece of paper that incriminates the gentleman they are going to search.  And that becomes the basis of incrimination.  We are asking the government, please, if you are going to conduct free and fair election, do not do this."

Negasso Gidada was once part of the the EPRDF inner circle.  He was Ethiopia's first president under the current constitution, but resigned in a dispute with the ruling party leadership in 2001, and is now an independent member of parliament.  He says revolutionary democracy is a cover for dictatorship.

"The major issue is the ideology which EPRDF follows," he said.  "EPRDF from its name is a so-called revolutionary democracy, which is actually a concept of Marxist-Leninist, which was formulated by Lenin, is following that.  It is a one party dictatorship and our forum is totally against this and is a liberal democratic, free-market oriented policy."

EPRDF spokesman Hailemariam Dessalegn scoffed at Negasso's charges, saying his record as president had shown him to be neither a liberal nor a democrat.  He said the ruling party is committed to free-market economic principles, but said the government has had to intervene in cases where markets have failed.

Hailemariam also rejected charges that election rules favor the ruling party.  He said all parties in parliament had approved the members of the National Election Board.  And he denied any intimidation of potential candidates is taking place.

A round of talks between the ruling party and opposition groups is set for Saturday on a code of conduct for the elections.  Members of the Forum for Democratic Dialogue say they will not participate unless the talks are broadened to include electoral fairness issues.

Ruling party spokesman Hailemarian says the talks will go on with or without the Forum.  He says the Forum represents only a handful of Ethiopia's 91 registered opposition parties.