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Ethiopian elections a significant step toward democracy – EU report

Mar 14, 2006 (NAIROBI) — Ethiopia’s elections marked a major step toward democracy, but fell short of international standards because of irregularities and the government’s heavy-handed response to protests against the results, the European union report said Tuesday.

Ethiopian_woman_casts_.jpgIn its final report of the controversial May 2005 ballot that returned Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to another five-year term, the European Union observer team said Ethiopians had gained greater political freedoms but widespread abuses undermined the polls’ validity.

The report, which was expected to be released in September last year, had been delayed because of concerns it would fuel further unrest that rocked the country, diplomats said on the condition of anonymity because they were unauthorized to speak to the media.

Protests over the election results saw clashes in June and November between stone throwing demonstrators and heavily armed security forces leave at least 86 people dead.

The EU chief observer, Ana Gomes, wanted to present the report in Ethiopia, but she told The Associated Press that the government would not let her into the country.

The 160-member EU team said in some areas they saw multiple voting, ballot stuffing and group voting.

“Very significant” numbers of ballots _ in some cases between 20 and 30 percent _ were ruled invalid, the observer team found, but they did not say who the invalid votes would have benefitted. They found results at constituency offices in favor of the ruling party that “differed significantly” from results posted at polling stations.

In other cases, the ruling party gained exactly the same number of votes at different polling stations while opposition parties secured no votes.

Often results were not published so opposition parties “had no access to vital information for verifying results and substantiating complaints,” the report said.

Complaints raised by political parties during the polls also went largely in favor of the ruling party while opposition concerns were dismissed, said the report.

“Overall, therefore the elections fell short of international principles for genuine democratic elections,” said the 57-page report.

The observer team is calling for reforms of Ethiopia’s laws and election board, media freedom and for vote counting to be “faster, more rigorous and more transparent. This will be a key measure to avoid post election conflict and controversy.”

Disputes over the slow emerging and in some cases “implausible” results, said the report, spilled over into demonstrations with protesters claiming the ruling party, who seized power in 1991, stole the vote.

Opposition leaders, journalists and activists were among thousands rounded up. Many have been released, but more than 100 are now on trial accused of treason, genocide and other crimes.

Ethiopia’s vote was widely seen as a test of the leadership of Meles, whose sometimes autocratic rule has led to questions over his commitment to democratic reform.

The EU is one of Ethiopia’s largest donors, giving the country an aid package of about A400 million (US$477 million) a year. Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest countries and has endured dictatorships, famine and poverty, but the E.U. and other donors and institutions are looking to redirect aid from the central government because of human rights concerns following the ballot.

(ST/AP)

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