The ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front party claimed last night to have won enough seats in Sunday's parliamentary elections to form the next government.
"The EPRDF has won seats for the federal parliament in the southern region, Oromia, Amhara, and Tigray, that would enable it to form the next federal government," a statement from its election office read out on state television said.
"But in Addis Ababa, EPRDF has lost the election for the federal parliament and regional council," the party admitted.
The biggest opposition coalition had earlier claimed big gains in the capital and beyond as election results trickled in, although the mass of rural voters had been widely expected to hand overall victory to the Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's EPRDF.
"Clearly, people want change, and they want to assert their freedom; they are not going to live in a society where their rights and freedoms are not respected," Berhanu Nega, vice-chairman of the main opposition group, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), told Reuters.
The group said it had won about 60 seats, including all 23 seats in Addis Ababa, based on results forwarded to them from polling stations but not officially endorsed.
If confirmed, such a figure would represent a big swing to the opposition, which held about 20 seats before the election.
"We have won Addis and a number of cities across the country," Mr Berhanu told a news conference.
Mr Zenawi has banned all demonstrations and rallies, and took personal control of the security forces and police after the election.
A leading member of Tony Blair's Commission for Africa, Mr Zenawi said in a televised statement he would protect the nation "from elements who want to foment trouble". He added: "Those who may have reservations over the election results are expected to air their grievances through the constitutional processes. Anything that violates the constitution will not be tolerated."
Mr Berhanu said: "This semi-state of emergency the prime minister announced, was ... uncalled for."
The CUD complained the government had allowed widespread election fraud and had arrested several of its election observers in the run-up to the polls. It threatened to refuse to recognise the results in certain areas.
Mr Berhanu said: "In many places, our poll-watchers are being kicked out and we don't know who is counting the vote."
Mr Zenawi, who took power when his rebel group overthrew the brutal Marxist government in 1991, is considered a moderate African leader, and has been keen to show off his democratic credentials, but critics say his actions are those of dictators everywhere.
In a report released last week, Human Rights Watch said the Ethiopian authorities had imprisoned and tortured political opponents in the Oromia region in the run-up to the elections to try to make people too afraid to speak out during the campaign.
About 90 per cent of Ethiopia's registered voters cast votes in the country's third multi-party elections.
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