Ethiopians are voting in national elections that are expected to return long-serving prime minister Meles Zenawi to power in the first ballot since a disputed poll in 2005 turned violent.
The opposition admits it has little chance of victory but says that is because the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has tightened its grip on power and routinely intimidates and jails its critics.
The EPRDF says it has won popularity during a period of economic growth by building roads, hydropower dams and supplying electricity to villages in a country where nearly 10 per cent of the population needed emergency food aid last year.
The European Union’s chief observer, Thijs Berman, says his impression from a visit to a polling station in the capital Addis Ababa was “very positive” and the turnout there was already 60 per cent by 11:00am (local time).
“I haven’t seen anything that would inspire any anxiety. It is a very peaceful Sunday. People are voting, which is the most important thing to do in a democracy,” he said.
Mr Berman says he had received vague reports of irregularities from one candidate but he had no idea at this stage how serious or widespread they might be.
In 2005, riots broke out in Addis Ababa when the EPRDF was declared winner.
Security forces killed 193 protesters and seven policemen also died in trouble that tarnished the reputation of one of the world’s biggest aid recipients.
Some 32 million Ethiopians – 90 per cent of eligible voters – will make their choices at more than 43,000 polling stations.
Mr Meles became leader of Ethiopia in 1991 when a rebel group led by him ousted a communist regime that killed hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians in a 17-year rule.
Former US president Bill Clinton called him one of a “new generation” of leaders who would bring democracy to the continent.
But Mr Meles has increasingly been criticised by rights groups who say he is becoming more autocratic and stifles dissent in the country of 80 million people.