Ethiopia's electoral commission and several opposition parties are trading accusations of illegal actions as the country prepares for the second phase of municipal council and parliamentary by-elections. VOA's Peter Heinlein in Addis Ababa reports that as opposition groups battle election officials, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's party is poised for a landslide.

Three members of Ethiopia's National Election Board held an unusual news conference Wednesday amid increasing doubts about the credibility of the local elections being held nationwide.

National Election Board Chairman Merga Bekana Wednesday accused the leader one of the country's largest regional parties of illegally ordering an election boycott, and suggested the party could lose its legal status. He said the boycott call by Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement, or OFDM, chief Bulcha Demeksa, violated Ethiopia's election code.

"It is unhealthy, it is illegal, because in the middle of the game it is unfair to boycott the process of elections generally," Merga Bekana said. "The board will take to the attention of ?the issue, and the board will assess thoroughly within the legal frame and eventually declare the decision."

In ordering his party to boycott, Bulcha accused the election board and ruling party officials of vote rigging, harassment and intimidation in the first phase. He said conditions were such that his party, a significant force in Ethiopia's most populous Oromiya region, had failed to win a single seat.

"Our hopes and aspirations for democracy have been dashed, and at this moment we appeal to our members, supporters and the people of Ethiopia in general to support us in our peaceful struggle against this emerging absolutism and disregard for the supremacy of the law," said Bulcha Demeksa.

Bulcha accused election board officials of creating conditions to ensure victory for Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's party, which is expected to win control of local councils across the country, and to increase its parliamentary majority. He also alleged that voter turnout figures had been grossly inflated.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, election board chief Merga stood by his estimate of a 90 percent first round turnout, despite eyewitness reports of empty polling stations in Addis Ababa. He also rejected opposition charges of ballot box stuffing.

"As far as the board is concerned, it is just a fabrication," said Merga. "There is no evidence for that. We have thoroughly discussed about the issue together with his excellency, Ato [[Mr.] Bulcha. We have attempted to solve the problems, and we have solved many of the problems. But when there is no evidence, it is very difficult for the board to solve what they are claiming, so we consider as fabrication."

A third political party announced Wednesday it will join the election boycott. Kedafo Aidahis, leader of the pro-government Afar Liberation Front told VOA his regional party would withdraw to protest alleged vote rigging.

Even before the boycott calls, independent observers said the election rules had created favorable conditions for a sweep by Prime Minister Meles's Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. In a statement issued before the first round, the U.S. based Human Rights Watch said Ethiopian government repression of the opposition had largely prevented political competition.

OFDM chief Bulcha warned Wednesday that Ethiopia is heading towards one-party rule. But election board officials scoffed at the idea. They noted there are still nearly 30 opposition parties participating in next Sunday's vote.

Political observers here noted that unlike 2005, there are no indications of election related unrest. Post-election demonstrations against alleged vote rigging in 2005 erupted into violence that left 200 people dead and led to the arrest of 30,000 people, including many opposition political leaders.