Ethiopians voted on Sunday in a parliamentary election that is expected to hand a landslide win to the ruling party, which boasts about delivering strong economic growth, while opponents complained that their supporters were harassed.
In power for almost a quarter of a century, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has overseen the transformation of a nation that was on its knees after communist purges and famine to one that now attracts foreign investors.
But critics say it allows little room for dissent. The outgoing parliament of 547 seats had just one opposition member.
“In so many village areas, our people are being harassed and our representatives are being driven away. They are forced to vote for the EPRDF,” Bekele Nagaa, a member of the biggest opposition coalition Medrek, told Reuters.
The government dismissed the charge. It has promised a free and fair vote.
“They (the opposition) have been campaigning freely,” Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told Reuters as he cast his vote in his Gununo constituency, about 330 km (200 miles) west of Addis Ababa. “There has not been any repression.”
Experts do not expect a major shift in opposition fortunes in this vote, the first since Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn took over from Meles Zenawi, the rebel-turned statesman who died in 2012.
“I will give my vote to the ruling party because I do not have faith in the opposition parties’ ability to govern,” said graphic designer Yohannes Seife, 24.
Ethiopia’s economy has been one of the fastest growing in Africa. The World Bank forecasts growth of 10.5 percent in the year starting in July. But some say it is time for new leaders.
“I’m sick of the ruling party. We are a young country and young people and we need change,” said a 28-year-old who asked that his name not be published for fear of government reprisals. He said he would vote for the opposition Blue party.
With the outcome of the election seen as a certainty, some Ethiopians say they would not bother voting.
“It is already known that the EPRDF will win the vote like the previous elections, by fraud,” said Behailu Ayele, 25.
Provisional results are expected to emerge in a few days, while the final tally is due to be declared next month in the nation of 96 million people and 37 million registered voters.
Rights groups accuse the government of locking up bloggers and journalists for their views, and restricting free speech. Officials deny this and say they only jail people for crimes.
The opposition won an unprecedented 147 seats in an election in 2005 but most winning opposition candidates did not join parliament, saying the ballot was rigged.
In that vote, opponents swept up seats in the capital, Addis Ababa, but many did not take them up, saying the vote was rigged, and riots which followed that poll killed 200 people.
Support for the ruling party is seen as stronger in more rural parts of the country, where many rely on state support.
“We want more work here,” said laborer Tesfaye Tadesse, 30, as he queued to vote in Gununo town. “But I will vote for continuity.”