Meles claims election win in Ethiopia despite poll fraud claims

Leader seen by US as bulwark against extremism heads for third decade in power

Meles Zenawi could be heading for a quarter of a century in power in Ethiopia after he claimed his party was set to win elections held yesterday.

The former guerrilla leader whose party has been accused of waging a war against its political opponents in the build up to the vote said that economic growth would assure victory.

As polling stations closed, opposition groups said they were thinking of contesting the results in court after alleged intimidation and vote rigging. Mr Meles came to power in 1991 when his rebel army overthrew the regime of Haile Mengistu Mariam. Despite indicating that he would not run for re-election, the Ethiopian premier seems set to stay in office for a term similar to those of Africa's "big men" leaders whom he has previously derided.

Its supporters say the Ethiopian government deserves credit for delivering economic development and political stability in the Horn of Africa.

Addis Ababa enjoys strong support from the US, the EU and China including $820m (£565m) a year in foreign aid. More than two thirds of that comes from Washington which sees the government as a bulwark against Islamic extremism in neighbouring Somalia.

Critics, including international human rights organisations, say the ruling party has turned Ethiopia into a police state, while opposition parties insist claims of economic growth are inflated and point to the 10 per cent of the country's people who needed food aid last year. Ethiopia remains one of the poorest country's on earth.

After voting in Adwa, his hometown in the country's north, the Prime Minister said that new roads, schools and dams had given Ethiopians hope. "Imagine a government which has delivered double-digit growth for over seven years losing an election anywhere on earth," he told Reuters. "It is unheard of for such a phenomenon to happen."

The main opposition to Mr Meles's Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has come from an alliance of opposition parties, Medrek, which campaigned to oust him from office.

The leader of the opposition bloc, Merera Gudina, said that yesterday's vote "doesn't look like an election, even by African standards". Medrek observers were prevented from monitoring the count in the south where they were expected to make gains, while their officials were being arrested or intimidated in some areas in the north, he said.

Foreign embassy staff in the country have been barred from monitoring the poll but the EU has a 170-strong team of observers on the ground. Provisional results are expected later today but the election board has until 21 June to announce the official result.

Ethiopia has lived for the last five years in the shadow of its first major experiment with democracy. Analysts say that the ruling party was unprepared for the scale of support for opposition parties who swept the capital and appeared to make strong gains in other regions. When results were announced, many apparent opposition gains were reversed and anti-government street protests followed. These were eventually crushed by the security services with some 200 people killed and thousands of opposition and civil society activists rounded up and imprisoned.

Opposition leaders were initially sentenced to life in prison and only released after signing a de facto apology for the unrest. New York-based monitor Human Rights Watch said in a pre-election report that the government had waged a "co-ordinated and sustained attack on political opponents, journalists and rights activists."

While concerns over repression have been mounting, the Obama administration has continued its predecessor's "quiet diplomacy" approach with Addis Ababa.

This despite a report last year from the US State Department which highlighted "unlawful killings, torture, beating, abuse and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, often acting with evident impunity."

Senior government positions are dominated by members of the Tigray ethnic minority who make up 6 per cent of the population but critics who point this out are routinely accused by the authorities of fomenting ethnic hatred.

Fact file: Birtukan Mideksa

As more than 32 million Ethiopians went to the polls yesterday, one name was missing from the ballots: The 36-year-old head of Ethiopia's main opposition party is serving a life term in prison.'s. Arguably the country's most popular and charismatic politician, the 36-year-old head of Ethiopia's main opposition party is serving a life term in prison.

A former judge and single mother, she was arrested and charged with treason along with scores of other government opponents after a disputed election led to street protests. She spent two years in prison before being released but was re-arrested at the end of 2008 after supposedly violating the terms of her pardon.

European Parliament and several US Senators have backed voices in Ethiopia calling for her immediate release. But the government says her freedom is a "dead issue".

As Ethiopia awaits the results of a new election Ms Birtukan's comments before she was sent back to jail still apply: "Ethiopia has many problems, including a legacy of repression, corruption and mismanagement. The US can help by using its considerable influence to encourage the government to negotiate with the opposition."

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