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Ethiopian leader claims win amid charges of vote rigging

West criticizes Meles Zenawi but values him as a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism.

Supporters of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front party and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi celebrate in Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, May 25, 2010. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Tens of thousands gathered beneath a scorching sun in the Ethiopian capital to celebrate Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s landslide election victory.

International observers, however, criticized the polls as unfair and Ethiopian opposition groups claimed the voting was rigged.

Meles, a longtime Western ally in the Horn of Africa who receives close to $1 billion in annual aid from the United States alone, has ruled since 1991. The vote was seen as a test of democracy after the last election in 2005 when anti-government protests were violently put down and an estimated 200 people were killed.

After provisional results gave him victory, Zenawi, a 55-year-old former Marxist rebel, addressed a flag-waving crowd from behind bullet-proof glass overlooking Meskel Square where his predecessor, the vicious dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, presided over Soviet-style military parades.

“[The opposition] must accept the decision of our great and proud people and not become tools of external forces who have no right to act as the ultimate judges of our elections,” Meles told the crowd.

At the victory rally, supporters of the ruling Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) defied international criticism of the election, cheering as a party official declared, “Our votes will not be discredited by any foreign body with hidden agendas!”

A small troop of children marched by carrying printed placards reading, “Our votes are not for sale,” and “Don’t take EPRDF [for] a whipping boy.”

Zenawi's speech and the demonstrations only served to highlight the mounting criticism that the vote was rigged.

“I don’t see any reason why we should accept the results that were completely fraudulent,” said Merara Gudina, a leader of the main opposition coalition Medrek, meaning Forum in the local Amharic language. Another opposition leader called for the elections to be re-run.

The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch also condemned the weekend vote.

“Behind an orderly facade, the government pressured, intimidated and threatened Ethiopian voters,” said Rona Peligal, acting Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Whatever the results, the most salient feature of this election was the months of repression preceding it.”

Human Rights Watch charged that in the weeks leading up to the polls ruling party operatives had intimidated voters by going from house to house telling them to register to vote, and to vote for the EPRDF or risk losing their houses or jobs.