Ethiopia opposition group to boycott local elections

The Associated Press
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia: Ethiopia's largest opposition group said Thursday it will boycott this month's elections, claiming the ruling party has forced tens of thousands of candidates to drop out through intimidation, detentions and threats.
"We are getting out of the whole process. The whole process is an illegal process," Beyene Petros, leader of the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces, a national coalition of opposition parties, told The Associated Press.
Ethiopia, a key U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa, has a long history of human rights abuses and flawed elections. Government security forces killed 193 civilians protesting alleged fraud in the 2005 general elections, which the European Union said were flawed.
Ethiopia will hold local, regional and some federal elections on April 13 and 20, with some 4 million seats up for grabs. But the main opposition groups, including UEDF and the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement, say at least 17,000 of their candidates have dropped out under pressure.
Many of the dropouts are in volatile western Ethiopia, where a rebellion by the Oromo ethnic group has been simmering for decades, the opposition said.
The dropout figures, which the opposition cited from their own tallies, could not be independently verified.
The Ethiopian government strongly denied the allegations.
"That's simply baseless," said Bereket Simon, special adviser to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. "There is no harassment, that's why nobody can prove it. We haven't experienced that, and they haven't experienced it either. Both the opposition and the ruling party haven't experienced any intimidation."
But the AP interviewed a dozen candidates and voters who gave independent accounts of intimidation by local officials with the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.
"Intimidation is going on on a mass scale," said Bulcha Demeksa, a lawmaker who heads the opposition Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement. "People have been told all kinds of scary things, like their children won't find jobs when they finish school ... that if they starve, they will not get any food."
David Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, told a congressional committee in Washington in March that he was concerned about this month's elections.
"The local elections are an opportunity for advancing democracy in Ethiopia," Shinn told the panel. "If they fail to achieve this goal, it will be an enormous lost opportunity."
In the tiny town of Nedjo, nestled deep in Ethiopia's western coffee country, aspiring teacher Seifu Tamiru said local officials from the ruling party forced him to abandon his ambitions of becoming a member of the town council.
"They said, 'If you keep on running for this position, you will not be employed as a teacher,'" said Seifu, 26, who ran as a member of the OFDM. "They said, 'Nobody in your family is going to be employed.'"
Seifu's campaign didn't even last a week.
"I was registered on Friday," Seifu said. "They started intimidating me on Saturday. I dropped out on Wednesday."
Beyene, leader of the UEDF, said at least one candidate from his party faced an attempt on his family's life.
"They torched a family when they were sleeping," he said. "The father was running as a candidate on our ticket."
The family, he said, escaped unharmed.
"That is our biggest success," Beyene said wryly, "that no one has been killed."
The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia said it has received complaints but cannot act without more evidence.
"Can they provide the evidence they were forced (to drop out)?" said board secretary Tesfaye Mengesha. "No, we asked them, they can't. How can they say they are forced? It's just an allegation."
OFDM said it has determined that up to 3,000 candidates may have been forced to drop out, according to their internal records. Beyene, the leader of the other opposition party, said the party lost 14,000 candidates for local seats in western and southern Ethiopia.
"This is from our own records," he said. "We maintain our own records and we tally who has passed, who has qualified and who has been dismissed. Our district managers compiled this information."
Beyene said he again fears violence in constituencies where his party's candidates have popular support. He also cited ethnic concerns and popular frustration with the nation's political elite, which is dominated by Ethiopians from the northern Tigray region.
"My fear is that in many of these places there will be violence," he said. "The worrisome point is how this society is being polarized. And this follows ethnic lines."
Also Thursday, about 2,000 people gathered in central Addis Ababa to hold a rare political protest.
"We want to be free," said Tayib Mohammed, 37, a member of the Welene, a predominantly Muslim tribe from the south of Ethiopia. That group also claims exclusion from the political process.
But despite promises by the government to bolster freedoms, many critics, opposition supporters and politicians feel democracy in Ethiopia has regressed since 2005.
"It has not gotten better," said Bulcha, the opposition lawmaker. "Democracy in Ethiopia is stillborn. It is not active now."

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