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.
Thijs Berman, the chief European Union election observer, said that the election, although calm, peaceful and well-organized on the day itself, had not been free and fair but that this did not mean Meles’ victory was invalid.
“The electoral process fell short of certain international commitments, notably regarding the transparency of the process and the lack of a level playing field for all contesting parties,” said
He added that stifling of dissent and a host of new laws in recent years resulted in, “a cumulative narrowing of the political space within the country” and that this had marred the election.
Washington’s top Africa diplomat, Johnnie Carson, echoed the criticism. “While the elections were calm and peaceful and largely without any kind of violence, we note with some degree of remorse that the elections there were not up to international standards,” he said.
In its assessment, the EU observers singled out for criticism the pervasive use of state resources for party purposes. “The separation between the ruling party and the public administration was blurred at the local level in many constituencies,” said Berman.
In recent years, the EPRDF’s centralized control of the country has achieved impressive economic growth and won improvements to the lives of many of the rural poor as it tries to haul many of its 80 million citizens out of poverty.
But critics say these gains are at the cost of political and personal freedoms and that the fusing of state and party leaves little room for dissent. In March, the U.S. State Department issued a scathing assessment of the country’s human rights situation listing politically motivated
killings and torture by state security services.
Despite this occasional outspokenness opposition politicians and civil society activists accuse the international community of standing by as dissent is increasingly stifled.
“The diplomatic community wants to wish away [the] problems of Ethiopia’s democratization,” said Beyene Petros, a senior Medrek official.
Human Rights Watch researcher Ben Rawlence was more forthright. “Our findings suggest that development assistance is underwriting the Ethiopian government's repression,” he said.
The reticence is partly due to Ethiopia’s success in fighting poverty in a country where 80 percent of the rapidly growing population eke out precarious lives in rural areas.
It is also because Ethiopia is a key Western ally willing to deploy the large and effective national army against Islamists in neighboring Somalia — as it did in 2006 — and to act as a bulwark
against Sudan and Eritrea.
Western criticism is expected to remain muted because Ethiopia’s stability, even though it is increasingly authoritarian and strong-armed, makes it an important anchor in a rough region where Islamic militancy is on the rise.
Editor's note: This dispatch was updated to correct the spelling of Medrek.