Ethiopia's ruling party appears headed for a massive victory in local and parliamentary by-elections being held across the country over the next two Sundays. VOA's Peter Heinlein in Addis Ababa reports the opposition is crying foul, and the largest opposition party is boycotting.

Days before the voting is set to begin, the main opposition United Ethiopian Democratic Force (UEDF) said it was withdrawing, and urged voters to stay away from the polls. That sets the stage for the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to win big majorities on local councils, giving them significant influence in crucial parliamentary elections two years from now.

In a VOA interview, UEDF Party chairman Beyene Petros said his party decided to boycott after determining the vote was rigged in the ruling party's favor.

"This is not an election," he said.  "This is a farce drama.  OK, if it is an election, democratic multi-party election, who are they competing against?"

Beyene says the ruling EPRDF has registered nearly four million candidates for local councils, while the electoral board disqualified the vast majority of opposition candidates.  He says the disqualifications create the conditions for establishment of one-party rule in Ethiopia.

"This is a single party dominant system," he added.  "That's what they want to put in place. We have to struggle to change the system along the way, but this time around, let them have it alone."

The head of the EPRDF Organization and Political Bureau, Bereket Simon, scoffed at the idea that there is any attempt to rig the elections, or to intimidate the opposition.  Bereket told VOA the electoral board had registered everyone who had come with the proper credentials. He said the failure of some opposition parties to register candidates was an indication of what he called 'an unhealthy attitude' toward the local election process.

Another senior opposition figure Bulcha Demeksa, leader of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement, said his party had decided to stay in the election, but only because dropping out would fuel separatist forces in Ethiopia's heavily-populated Oromo region. He says opposition parties are facing extinction in the face of a determined ruling party onslaught.

"I also see opposition is going to maybe die at the end," he said.  "I cannot see how opposition parties can survive with this extremely determined strike by the government and the National Election Board. They cannot survive.  No funds. They are completely surrounded by extremely anti-democratic forces."

Bulcha charged that Ethiopian democracy had taken many steps backward since 2005, when 200 people, mostly opposition activists, were killed in post-election clashes with security forces. Tens of thousands of others were jailed.

Ruling party chief Bereket called the allegation 'baseless', and said it is unfortunate that Beyene Petros's UEDF is boycotting this month's vote.

Human Rights Watch, however, said Ethiopian government repression of the opposition had largely prevented political competition. The U.S.-based rights group issued a statement Friday saying it is too late to salvage the elections, which it called a "rubber stamp on the EPRDF's near-monopoly on power at the local level.