Ethiopia’s ruling party flexes muscles ahead of Sunday vote

ADDIS ABABA/REUTERS

Ethiopia’s ruling party wrapped up its campaign for Sunday’s election with a thunderous rally of fireworks and mock guerrilla battles, paving the way for Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to secure a landslide victory in the Horn of Africa giant.

About 30,000 government supporters waved party flags and sang patriotic songs at a final show of force by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, which has been in power since 1991.

“They changed the country for the better so why would I vote for someone else?” Migbare Abi, a 30-year-old disabled cobbler, said inside the Addis Ababa stadium where traditional music blared out from loudspeakers.

More than 36 million have registered to vote in the first legislative elections since Hailemariam took office following the death of long-serving leader Meles Zenawi in 2012.

Diplomats and analysts say the ruling party is set for another landslide victory in Africa’s most populous nation after Nigeria.

EPRDF youth members staged dance shows while another group wearing army fatigues and brandishing decommissioned AK-47 rifles staged mock battles, in a nod to the ruling party’s rebel past.

The spectacle was in stark contrast to opposition rallies, which have rarely attracted more than few hundred people.

Leaders from the fragmented and under-funded opposition say the government has stifled dissent, infiltrating rival parties and arresting their members. Rights groups say the government has also used security laws to curb free speech, something officials deny.

The 547-seat parliament has only one opposition figure in its ranks. Others have questioned the independence of the board handling the elections.

Hailemariam dismissed those charges, saying steps had been taken to ensure the transparency and fairness of the polls. He also told the opposition not to push its case on the streets.

Around 200 people were killed after 2005 elections during rallies by protesters saying the EPRDF’s win had been rigged – allegations dismissed by the party.

“We would like to warn them against such illegal activity,” Hailemariam told parliament on Thursday. “We are prepared to take measures against any form of incitement for violence.”

Since 1991 when rebels led by Meles toppled dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam after a 17-year guerrilla war, Ethiopia has worked hard to shed its image as a land of famine and conflict.

Hailemariam’s deputy, Demeke Mekonnen, said the coalition would continue to focus on the economy, which has expanded at an average 10 percent a year over the past decade, one of the highest rates in the world.

“We will continue our work to transform Ethiopia, achieve our democratic goals and change the lives of our citizens,” he said to cheers from supporters wearing yellow jackets with pictures of bees – a party election logo symbolizing hard work.

(Editing by Ed Cropley and Andrew Heavens)

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