Ethiopians vote in 1st election without former strongman 
Ethiopians vote inside a polling station in the capital Addis Ababa

ADDIS ABABA: Ethiopians voted Sunday in national and regional elections, the country’s first since the 2012 death of its longtime leader, but the ruling party is expected to maintain its iron-clad grip on power.

More than 38 million voters were eligible to cast ballots in this East African nation of about 90 million people. Some opposition groups had threatened to boycott the vote, saying their members were being harassed and detained — charges the government denies.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, a former university professor-turned-politician, has been leading the country since the death of strongman Meles Zenawi, who built the ruling coalition into a powerful political organization while opposition groups complained of persecution.

Ethiopia is a federal parliamentary republic, with the party or coalition that wins the most seats in the 547-seat parliament forming the next government. All parliament seats were at stake Sunday, as well as local offices, but Desalegn is expected to remain in power.

In 2010, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, won 99.6 percent of all parliamentary seats. Only one opposition lawmaker won a seat in an election that watchdog groups said was marred by intimidation and the harassment of opposition activists.

Human Rights Watch called that victory “the culmination of the government’s five-year strategy of systematically closing down space for political dissent and independent criticism.”

Those allegations have persisted for this year’s election. The government has denied the allegations, instead accusing the opposition — and neighboring arch-foe Eritrea — of plotting to disrupt the vote.

“We remain vigilant and confident that the general election will be peaceful, free and fair, notwithstanding destabilization attempts that may be tried by Eritrea or its local emissaries, which we will respond to with stern measures,” Desalegn said Thursday.

More 45,000 polling stations will be open with nearly 250,000 election observers assigned to monitor them. The National Election Board of Ethiopia said provisional results are expected in a week but final results won’t be released before June 22.

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