Huge crowd celebrates Ethiopia's ruling party victory, but rights group calls vote corrupted

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Tens of thousands of ruling party supporters rallied Tuesday in Ethiopia's capital to celebrate victory in the national election, which a U.S. rights group claims was marred by irregularities.

A top opposition leader denounced the provisional results released by the Ethiopian elections board, but did not indicate what action his party would take.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi arrived midmorning at the main square in Addis Ababa, where he began addressing the crowd in Amharic as hundreds of blue-uniformed federal police stood guard.

The European Union mission said it would release a report on the election Tuesday. While the EU mission said that Sunday's vote had been peaceful, it said it also had received reports of irregularities from opposition candidates.

An announcer at Tuesday's rally read out slogans from signs held up by government supporters criticizing foreign rights groups. Some of the signs read: "We chose our leaders, accept the results" and "Stop second guessing us."

The rally was called as provisional returns showed a victory for the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front and its allies.

The tallies showed the EPRDF and its allies ahead in the nine regions that have reported results, out of a total of 11. Final results will be announced in late June, officials have said.

Top opposition leader Hailu Shawel said the election results were not fair.

"The vote is 100 percent controlled by the ruling party," Hailu said.

He also said that he suspected many of people who attended the rally were paid to do so and did not necessarily support the ruling party and its allies.

Ruling party officials could be reached immediately for comment on the results announced Monday.

Sunday's vote had been closely watched by international observers after the contentious 2005 election, in which the opposition won an unprecedented number of parliamentary seats only to endure police crackdowns and the killing of 193 demonstrators after the votes were counted.

The election board chairman said the ruling party had won 20 of the capital's 23 parliamentary seats in Sunday's vote, with only two left to report results in Addis Ababa. There are 546 assembly seats in all.

New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized Sunday's vote as corrupted by pre-election irregularities. The group said voters were told they could lose food assistance, public-sector jobs, loans and educational opportunities if they voted against the ruling party.

"Behind an orderly facade, the government pressured, intimidated and threatened Ethiopian voters," said Rona Peligal, acting Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Whatever the results, the most salient feature of this election was the months of repression preceding it."

Ethiopian election officials said they witnessed no irregularities, and government spokesman Bereket Simon said the election was free and fair.

"It is sad to hear that while the election officials have said Ethiopians voted in a democratic way, Human Rights Watch, which has nothing to do with the election observation, is declaring our election fraudulent," he said. "The people of Ethiopia have voted, and no one is going to take their vote away from them."

Analysts had predicted an easy win for the ruling party, led by Meles, a U.S. ally now poised to get five more years of power after he seized control in a 1991 coup.

Since the violent elections in 2005, the opposition and some analysts say the government has systematically stifled the competition, while limiting the media and restricting aid groups from working on human rights issues.

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 and provides billions of dollars in foreign aid. Both countries want to curb Islamist extremism in Somalia, Ethiopia's unstable neighbor to the east.