Ethiopians vote in test for democracy

 

Millions of Ethiopians voted today in parliamentary polls expected to give Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's ruling coalition a third five-year term. The election, only the second real multi-party contest in Africa's top coffee producer, will test how democratic the country has become since Mr Meles toppled dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991 ending 17 years of Marxist rule.

Opposition parties advocating a bigger role for free markets in the country of 72 million have set aside their ethnic differences for the first time, pledging to unite if it means winning a majority in the 547-seat national assembly.

But many analysts say a victory over Mr Meles's dominant Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is unlikely, given the opposition currently holds a mere 20 seats.

The run-up to the election has been marred by opposition allegations that the EPRDF is trying to rig the result. The government denies this.

Former US President Jimmy Carter, heading an observer mission from his Carter Center, told reporters he had visited 12 stations and found "very long lines of people waiting pleasantly". But he added that his team was probing reports that 450 ballots had been marked before voting began. He said there had been positive developments in the election process.

"Even opposition leaders we've met with have emphasised dramatic improvements in this country, the openness of the campaign."

The main opposition coalitions say they would create jobs by freeing up the state-controlled economy through privatisation and ending state ownership of land, Ethiopia's greatest asset.

The government insists the state must own land, arguing it gives more security to farmers.

Officials results are due on June 8.