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Ethiopia's Ruling Party Is Expected to Keep Grip on Power – New York Times

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Voters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, reading newspapers ahead of Sunday’s election. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which currently governs, is expected to win.

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Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Like the other people in his village, Berhanu Wodajo, a 40-year-old farmer, is planning to vote for “the bee.”

In the buildup to national elections on Sunday, the insect has become ubiquitous. Its image adorns banners over busy roads, placards at parades and fliers taped to corrugated steel walls. It is the symbol of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which has held power in this country for 24 years.

“The bee is the government,” said Mr. Berhanu in Dakabora, a tiny village in central Ethiopia. “We don’t know anything about the other options.”

A total of 58 parties have fielded candidates for the federal Parliament and regional assemblies this year, and more than 36 million citizens are registered to vote in Sunday’s election, the first national poll since the 2012 death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who ruled the country for 17 years. His party, the E.P.R.D.F., now led by Hailemariam Desalegn, is expected to hold on to power.

Politicians from the ruling party have campaigned on a record of economic growth. The economy, according to government statistics, grew 10 percent annually over the past decade. The government has also touted construction of large-scale projects like the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which could more than triple electricity generation, and assistance to farmers that helped poverty rates fall from 44 to 30 percent between 2000 and 2011, according to the World Bank.

A spokesman for the E.P.R.D.F., Desta Tesfaw, said opposition parties had little to offer by comparison. “They are not strong enough,” he said. “They have no clear policy. They have no clear program.”

Opposition politicians, meanwhile, have tried to appeal to Ethiopians disillusioned with the ruling party’s tight control over the political sphere, and have campaigned particularly in urban areas.

But most voters believe the opposition stands little chance of success given the dominance of the E.P.R.D.F., especially in rural areas where about 80 percent of the population lives.

The opposition has also complained of harassment and arbitrary detentions, and human rights groups say that the government uses restrictions on free speech to muzzle its rivals.

“Our party members are being detained, and the government has arrested some of our supporters who were meant to be observers during the election,” said Yilkal Getnet, chairman of the opposition party, Semayawi.

This campaign season “has been marred by gross, systematic and widespread violations of ordinary Ethiopians’ human rights,” Amnesty International said in a statement. The African Union is deploying international observers this year; unlike past elections, the European Union was not invited.

The E.P.R.D.F.’s control over rural areas often makes the state and the party indistinguishable, creating an environment where low-level officials feel free to direct citizens on how to vote.

Mr. Berhanu said that the people had been instructed by local officials to cast their ballots for the status quo. “In other areas, they have opposition parties. Here, there is only one,” he said. “Only the bee.”

The ruling party has had a strong rural base since its inception as a rebel group during the 1980s, when it relied on a network of fighters in the countryside to battle a military government based in Addis Ababa.

Today, the government bolsters its support in rural areas through a range of development projects aimed at farmers: providing agricultural training and fertilizers, as well as health clinics and schools. “These farmers are receiving benefits,” said Ermias Abebe, a political analyst and former professor at Addis Ababa University. “And if you’re getting benefits because the E.P.R.D.F. is in power, you don’t want to lose that.”

The people of Dakabora have received a health clinic and agricultural training, but not all are enthusiastic about the ruling party. “The government has done nothing for us,” said Solomon Tefere, a village priest, who said that villagers’ thatched-roofed huts have no electricity or running water. Mr. Berhanu said local officials forced him to buy expensive fertilizer on the threat of losing the right to farm his land.

Alemayehu Girma, 30, said she attended a meeting for women this week, where officials taught her how to cast a ballot for the ruling party. “There were three options, and they showed us where to mark,” she said. “We are just going to vote for the one they suggested.”

Gebru Gebremariam Uttura is running for a parliamentary seat representing a rural constituency in central Oromia. He is the secretary general of the opposition coalition Medrek, which is second only to the E.P.R.D.F. in the number of candidates running.

While the ruling party has constant access to the population because it runs the state, opposition parties lack the channels to communicate with voters, Mr. Gebru said. “So in rural areas it is more difficult because people are always with the cadres of the E.P.R.D.F. because of development activities,” he said.

Opposition candidates have done better with urban voters, most notably in a 2005 election that resulted in unprecedented losses for the E.P.R.D.F. in Addis Ababa and other cities. But the results were contested, resulting in protests, a crackdown by the authorities and a boycott of Parliament by most of the elected opposition candidates.

Since then, the ruling coalition has moved to win urban voters with microenterprise grants, affordable housing and a light-rail system currently under construction in the capital.

Despite electoral rules that favor more established blocs, Mr. Yilkal’s young, center-right Semayawi party ranks third in the number of candidates registered for the election. But getting votes — even from those urban citizens who dislike the ruling party — remains a challenge.

“Many people will vote for the E.P.R.D.F. just because this country needs a government,” said Elias Tesfaye, 34, a trader in the capital who sees opposition groups as weak and fragmented. “People think that if another party is elected, the country will be in turmoil or ruined by disputes or corruption. So even though people don’t like this government, they think there is no alternative.”

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