May 24, 2015 6:47 AM
The voting lines formed well before sunrise in Addis Ababa on Sunday. People thronged to polling stations set up in tents, public halls and schools across this rapidly growing city of more than 3 million residents.
But the winner of this poll is all but certain: the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front has ruled since 1991 after taking power in a coup against the former Marxist government. Opposition parties won only a single seat in parliament during the last elections five years ago.
This is the first vote since the death of longtime prime minister Meles Zenawi in 2012. Meles successor, mild-mannered former academic Hailemariam Desalegn, went to his rural village in southern Ethiopia to vote. Hailemariams party recently voted to observe two term limits for prime minister, meaning that if he wins, this could be his final term.
In the capital, construction worker Tageyn Waza, 30, listed her job as a construction worker and the rapid pace of development as her reasons to support the EPRDF.
Nice, very nice. Good, this government. Nice, good, all nice, she said.
But across town, a university student who asked to only be identified by her first name, Meron, echoed claims by opposition parties that the playing field is slanted toward the ruling party.
Members of the nations small, underfunded opposition parties have repeatedly complained of harassment, arrests and unfair treatment. Only one foreign observer mission is watching this poll, the African Union.
The ruling party has been monopolizing the media and, I dont know, even when they were trying to raise awareness of what they are, they had more power, more influence,” said Meron. “The other parties werent given that much time. They started basically, when we heard about Semayawi [the Blue Party] and Medrek [another opposition party], we just heard in the past two, three weeks what they were planning on doing. I think the ruling party just monopolized the entire vote, the entire election.
A ruling party poll observer who identified himself only as “A. Abdelkafur” praised the vote.
This election is perfect: democratic, fair, and so far it is going very smoothly, he said.
But below that smooth surface lie troubled waters. A 2009 anti-terrorism law has led to the arrest and long-term imprisonment of dozens of journalists who were openly critical of the government. Many others have fled into exile or say they have resorted to self-censorship.
Supreme Court Judge Dagne Melaku offered praise for Sundays national election. He is the same judge who dismissed an appeal seeking the overturn of an 18-year prison sentence for award-winning journalist Eskinder Nega.
Really, its free. Okay? There is no problem, he said.
VOA News approached numerous voters with a video camera, in an attempt to seek a variety of political views. Some voters actually ran away.
Initial results are expected later this week. Final results are expected June 22.
VOA reporter Marthe van der Wolf contributed to this report from Addis Ababa.