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© Reuters. Taxi drivers stand in front of campaign banners of the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and Birhanu Nega, head of the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party, hours before Ethiopia’s parliamentary and regional elections, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,

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By Dawit Endeshaw and Ayenat Mersie

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) -Ethiopia’s elections chief said complaints by the opposition of irregularities in two regions risked tarnishing polls on Monday billed by the government as the country’s first free and fair vote after decades of repression.

Election board chief Birtukan Midekssa said several opposition parties had complained their agents were beaten and their badges confiscated in two regions.

Opposition leader Berhanu Nega said his Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party (Ezema) had filed 207 complaints. Local officials and militia prevented observers from entering many polling stations in the Amhara region and in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region, he said.

“This will jeopardise the credibility of the election process,” Birtukan warned. “Local officials and law enforcement officers should immediately take corrective measures.”

But in most areas, including the capital, voting went peacefully although many polling stations opened late. The election board extended voting nationwide by three hours because many polling stations still had long lines when they were due to close.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has said the elections for national and regional parliaments are proof of his commitment to democracy.

“I hope it will be the best election in history,” he told journalists after voting.

Ethnic violence and printing errors have delayed the polls in a fifth of constituencies, however, including all those in Tigray, where Ethiopia’s military has been fighting the northern region’s former governing party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), since November.

In populous Oromiya, major opposition parties are boycotting the vote over what they say is intimidation by regional security forces. Government officials did not return calls seeking comment about the allegations of intimidation.

Abiy, 45, oversaw sweeping political and economic reforms after his appointment in 2018 by the ruling coalition which, with allies, currently holds all 547 national parliamentary seats.

But some rights activists say those gains are being reversed and he is coming under increasing international pressure over reports of abuses in the war in Tigray. The UN says 350,000 people there face famine – something Abiy denies.

“There is no hunger in Tigray,” he told a journalist for the British Broadcasting Corporation after voting.

Abiy has said the government will hold anyone committing abuses in Tigray to account. The results of a joint investigation by the United Nations and the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission into rights violations by “all parties to the conflict” in Tigray are expected in August, U.N. rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Monday.

Ethiopia is a diplomatic heavyweight in the volatile Horn of Africa, providing peacekeepers to Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. With Africa’s second-biggest population, over a third aged under 18, it is also a major frontier market.

A CROWDED FIELD

More than 37 million of Ethiopia’s 109 million people are registered to vote and can choose from 46 mostly small, ethnically-based parties and more than 9,000 candidates – a record, according to the electoral board.

Abiy’s newly-formed Prosperity Party, symbolised by a lightbulb, is the frontrunner. Berhanu is the only other prominent candidate not running on an ethnic ticket but his party has struggled to attract support outside cities.

Most constituencies where the election was delayed will vote in September, although no date has been set for polls in Tigray, where the United Nations says some 350,000 people face famine.

Ethnic violence in other regions too has killed thousands since Abiy took power.

“I will vote for a party that I think will bring peace,” marketing director Yetayew Solomon, 30, told Reuters as he waited to vote in the capital.

DEMOCRACY AND THE ECONOMY

Abiy’s reforms include unbanning political parties, gatherings and media outlets and releasing political prisoners.

But Fisseha Tekle from rights group Amnesty International said the government was still quashing dissent using a revised anti-terrorism law and new hate speech legislation.

“The government is using these laws to arrest people and keep them in prison for a long time,” Fisseha said.

Abiy’s spokeswoman Billene Seyoum did not immediately respond to a request for comment but previously told Reuters: “There is no perfect environment; however, it cannot be said that a nascent democracy like Ethiopia is regressing.”

Voters are also concerned about the economy.

Abiy has promised to bring in foreign investment and speed up electrification by filling a giant $4 billion hydropower dam on the Blue Nile, stoking tension with Egypt and Sudan, which fear the Nile water supplies they rely on might be interrupted.

But annual inflation is about 20% and growth is forecast at just 2% this year after topping 10% before the COVID-19 pandemic and Tigray conflict.

“The cost of living is increasing,” said shopkeeper Murad Merga, whose window was crowded with ruling party posters. But he remained upbeat: “Everything will be fixed step by step.”





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