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Ethiopia's ruling party poised to win election; opposition claims harassment, intimidation

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Voters have been intimidated and opposition candidates harassed ahead of Ethiopia's national elections on Sunday, opposition members say, a vote likely to propel the current prime minister — a U.S. ally — into a second decade of power.

Opposition leaders say they worry this year's election may turn into a repeat of 2005's contentious poll which was capped by the arrest of about 100 opposition politicians and activists who challenged the results.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who seized power in the East Africa nation in a 1991 coup, appears likely to win. His Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front denies it repressed its opponents and says candidates have been able to campaign freely. But two opposition campaigners have been killed under mysterious circumstances.

In 2005, a then-energetic opposition won an unprecedented number of parliamentary seats in this country of 85 million, only to endure police crackdowns and the killing of 193 demonstrators after the votes were counted.

"People are so terrorized they just want this election to be over, and they want to go back to their miserable lives," said former politician Berhanu Nega, who lives in political exile in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania and has been sentenced to death in absentia in Ethiopia.

London-based analyst Gus Selassie of IHS Global Insight noted "a marked sense of fear and trepidation surrounding the build-up" to the elections. He predicted that the ruling party will easily win, with the only question mark being by how much.

The government has said observers from the European Union and the African Union can monitor the vote along with 40,000 local observers.

On the final day of campaigning Thursday, opposition leaders from Medrek, the largest opposition bloc, said ruling party officials have pressured voters to sign commitments to vote for the party and that ruling party officials were issued multiple voter cards.

Medrek member Bulcha Demeksa also said voters in his constituency in Ethiopia's rural south were told the ruling party could see their marked ballots, which are supposed to be secret.

"If there's an attempt to rig the election, the opposition along with the people will stay vigilant," said Medrek chairman Beyene Petros.

The ruling party has based its campaign on promises of economic growth and agricultural development.

"The main challenge comes from the poverty and backwardness that we find ourselves in," Communications Minister Bereket Simon told The Associated Press. "Our main target is eradicating poverty and ensuring democratic development ... For the coming five years, if we are elected, we are going to broaden the democratic gains and ensure good governance."

Government spokesman Shimeles Kemal also said the opposition's claims of intimidation were not true. He called the opposition "pathological liars."

Ethiopia is frequently criticized for its human rights record, including by the U.S. State Department which in a March report cited reports of "unlawful killings, torture, beating, abuse and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, often acting with evident impunity."

Still, the U.S. considers Ethiopia an ally. Both countries want to curb Islamic extremism in Somalia, Ethiopia's unstable neighbor to the east. Ethiopia is reliant on billions of dollars of foreign aid, most of it from the U.S.

Meles' rule has weathered many challenges: droughts, tensions over a disputed border with Eritrea and rebel movements around the country. The Ethiopian army also made an incursion into neighboring Somalia in late 2006 to support the weak U.N.-backed Somali government in its fight against Islamic insurgents before withdrawing last year.

Meles, meanwhile, has elevated his international profile, representing all of Africa during climate-change negotiations in Copenhagen.

The opposition says the ruling party has tightened its grip through laws that restrict aid groups from working on human rights issues and a separate law that hinders the media.

"In the last five years, the ruling party has imprisoned members of the opposition (and) supporters throughout the country," said Medrek spokesman Negasso Gidada. "To get support from donor countries, it is organizing an election that it claims to be free and fair."

Negasso said the opposition party had suffered from infighting, including a scuffle earlier this month in opposition party headquarters.

Berhanu believes the ruling party has "essentially closed any venue for any meaningful competition in the country."

Berhanu won a city council seat in the 2005 election and was among opposition leaders and journalists jailed in the election's aftermath. Initially he was charged with treason and attempted genocide, then convicted of inciting violence and imprisoned for 2½ years.

In December, he was sentenced to death in absentia after the government convicted him of belonging to a terrorist group and conspiring to assassinate government officials. He dismissed the legitimacy of the court and its sentence and says he never plotted a coup.

(This version CORRECTS Pennsylvania is state not city; Style in Ethiopia is to use first names on second reference.)