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Ethiopia votes with ruling party almost certain to return

Ethiopians head to the polls on Sunday, with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn likely to stay in office as successor to the late Meles Zenawi. Rights groups say polling is unlikely to be free or fair.

Ethiopia's ruling party boasted economic gains as Africa's second-most populous country readied for its election on Sunday. Opponents have accused the government of benefiting from authoritarian tactics.

Redwan Hussein, a spokesman for the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), dismissed the criticism, saying voters would give the party and Hailemariam "another chance" if they bore no grudge.

The EPRDF has ruled since 1991, when Ethiopia was still recovering from a 1984 famine. Heavy state investment in recent years has resulted in economic growth of more than 10 percent, according to the World Bank.

After former Marxist rebel Meles Zenawi died in 2012, his successor Hailemariam said he intended to open up "space" in the country's political system for other parties.

Ethiopia's outgoing parliament of 547 seats had only one opposition member.

Äthiopien vor der Wahl Blaue Partei Anhänger in Addis Abeba

Blue Party supporters in Addis Ababa

Space for opposition 'closed'

Yilekal Getinet, the leader of Semayawi (or Blue Party in Ethiopia's Amharic language) told the French news agency AFP on Saturday the "political space has been closed."

As one of Ethiopia's main opposition groups, the Blue Party said election authorities had cut its list of 400 candidates to just 139.

"Electoral defeat was not on the cards for Ethiopia's ruling party, but it is vital for the country's development that it engages more effectively with dissenting voices," said Jason Mosley of Britain's Chatham House think tank, in an interview with AFP.

Western rights groups have often accused the government of

jailing bloggers and journalists

.

Foreign observers scarce

The African Union has sent an election observation team of 59 officials. However, the European Union and the US-based Carter Center were not invited back after monitoring Ethiopia's elections in 2005 and 2010.

Opposition candidates won 147 seats in the 2005 election, but most did not enter parliament, alleging that that the ballot had been rigged. Protests and ensuing violence left some 200 people dead.

National election board chairman Merga Bekana said complaints ahead of Sunday's poll were "baseless," adding that the commission would deploy 40,000 observers.

"This is a government that says 'This is the only way and there is no other way," said Bekele Gerba, a member of Ethiopia's opposition Medrek coalition, speaking with Reuters. Gerba was jailed for four years on what he said were trumped-up charges.

Some 37 million Ethiopians have registered to vote in the nation of 96 million. A final tally is not expected until June 22, but unofficial results are likely within the next five days.

ipj/cmk (AFP, Reuters)

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