By Aaron Maasho and Drazen Jorgic
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopians vote on Sunday in an election likely to hand another sweeping victory to the ruling party, which boasts of delivering one of the fastest growing economies in Africa though opponents say it has crushed dissent at the same time.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been in power since 1991, during which time the nation that was shattered by communist purges in the 1970s and a 1980s famine has drawn increasing foreign investor interest.
“Our past was bleak but the country has turned around its fortunes,” retired teacher Dawit Haileselassie said at an EPRDF rally in Addis Ababa this week where thousands gathered, close to a memorial museum to the victims of “Red Terror” purges.
He said he would be voting for the EPRDF. Its leader, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, took Ethiopia’s top post after the death in 2012 of Meles Zenawi, the rebel-turned-statesman and architect of the country’s transformation.
Unofficial results are likely to emerge in a few days, while the final tally will not be declared until next month.
Ethiopia has built new roads, railways and hydro-electric dams at breakneck pace, and attracted foreign brewers, textile firms and others. The World Bank said the economy would grow at 10.5 percent in the year starting July 2015.
But economists say heavy state investment, while driving growth, risks squeezing out private businesses vital to job creation in the Horn of Africa state.
Telecoms is a state monopoly, and foreigners cannot invest in banks or the retail sector.
Opponents say political freedoms have been trampled on, adding the polls will not properly reflect public opinion in a nation of 96 million people and 37 million registered voters.
“This is a government that says ‘this is the only way and there is no other way’,” said Bekele Gerba, a member of the biggest opposition grouping, the Medrek coalition, who was jailed for four years on what he says were trumped-up charges.
The government insists it guarantees free speech and does not jail anyone for their political views, accusing its opponents of being disorganised and lacking popular policies.
The outgoing parliament of 547 seats has just one opposition member. While 57 parties are taking part in the vote, experts say hardly any offer real opposition.
“I will not vote this time,” said Mikael, a taxi driver, who declined to give his last name for fear of government reprisals, adding that the EPRDF did “not play a fair game”.
Ethiopia’s newest opposition group, the Blue Party, said election authorities cut its list of 400 candidates to just 139.
Western donors have criticised the government for jailing bloggers and journalists. Officials say it only detains people for criminal offences.
The opposition won an unprecedented 147 seats in an election in 2005 but most did not join parliament, saying the ballot was rigged. In that vote, opponents swept up seats in Addis Ababa.
Loyalties are more difficult to gauge in rural parts of the country, where many live in poverty.
“In really rural areas, people don’t know anyone other than EPRDF, who put their logo on state handouts, like seeds and fertiliser,” said a political analyst who asked not to be named.