Addis Ababa – Over 12 million Ethiopians have so far registered for key polls in May, officials have said, the first national elections since the death of long-time leader Meles Zenawi.
Numbers registered for the 24 May polls have “exceeded all expectations”, deputy electoral commission chief Addisu Gebregziabhier said.
Election officials are expecting up to 33 million people to register for the parliamentary polls, considered by the international community as a key test for democracy in the Horn of Africa nation. Registration opened on 9 January and runs until 19 February.
The last elections in 2010 gave a landslide victory to the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), who along with allied parties won 545 of 547 seats in the House of People’s Representatives.
The main opposition parties rejected those results claiming fraud, but their appeals were turned down by the electoral board and the supreme court.
But the polls were peaceful, unlike in 2005, when opposition accusations of fraud sparked violence that left 200 people dead.
Meles, who died in 2012, was succeeded by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who has said he is committed to opening up the country’s political system to allow space for opposition parties.
“It is an existential issue. If we do not have a proper multiparty democracy in this country, this country will end up like Somalia,” Hailemariam told reporters last month.
But the prime minister also justified lawsuits taken against opposition leaders he accused of “links with terrorist organisations”.
Several opposition parties have also complained that they have been obstructed by the electoral commission in registering for the elections.
Rights groups routinely accuse Ethiopia of clamping down on opposition supporters and journalists, using anti-terrorism laws to silence dissent and jail critics.