Ethiopia's Meles rejects poll criticism

ADDIS ABABA Wed May 26, 2010 5:27pm EDT

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi addresses a news conference at his office in the capital Addis Ababa, May 26, 2010. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi addresses a news conference at his office in the capital Addis Ababa, May 26, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

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ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi rejected opposition calls for a fresh election on Wednesday, after the Europe Union and the United States said his landslide victory did not meet international standards.

But the 55-year-old leader who came to power in 1991 offered the opposition an olive branch, saying forums may be used to give opponents a say in key legislative proposals and how political parties are funded.

The electoral board said Tuesday the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and allied parties had won 534 seats out of 536 declared, giving Meles most seats in the 547-member parliament.

Meles said the government would not carry out earlier threats to prosecute some opponents which he said had broken campaign codes.

"The call for fresh elections is completely unjustified and clearly contradicts the law," Meles told a news conference.

"For them to call for a fresh general re-election based on allegations, allegations that have been characterized as unproven and unprovable, even by the observers, would be going a bit too far," he said.

At the last election in 2005, an opposition coalition cried foul after the EPRDF and its allies won 327 seats. Riots erupted in the capital on two separate occasions. Security forces killed 193 protesters and seven policemen died.

A European Union observer mission said this year's election was marred by the EPRDF's use of state resources for campaigning, putting the opposition at a disadvantage ahead of the vote, but this did not mean the count itself was invalid.

The United States, which earlier said Ethiopia's election failed to meet international standards, said the government's next steps could help determine the future of U.S. ties to the country, a key U.S. ally in the fight against the rise of militant Islamism in the Horn of Africa.

"Moving forward we will again be talking directly to the government and making clear what we feel it has to do to expand political space for more inclusive results in future elections," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told a news briefing.

"To the extent that Ethiopia values the relationship with the United States, then we think they should heed this very direct and strong message."

"NOT A PROTECTORATE"

An eight-party opposition coalition called Medrek, which has won only one parliamentary seat so far, wants the vote rerun.

"This election -- let me take that word back, this activity -- that took place on May 23, we don't consider it a genuine election but rather a drama acted by the EPRDF," Medrek chairman Beyene Petros told reporters in the capital Addis Ababa.

The second biggest opposition party, the All Ethiopian Unity Organization, also called for a new election.

Western diplomats are watching closely to see how for the opposition will go after many of its senior leaders lost their seats in the parliamentary victory for Meles, who is looking to foreign investors to help accelerate development.

There was hardly any violence on election day and no signs yet of street protests against the sheer scale of the expected EPRDF win, which has effectively wiped out the opposition, even in its traditional strongholds.

The opposition has consistently said it would not call for street protests, but it may challenge the result in court.

Police shot dead two opposition members in the sensitive Oromia region, but Meles said they were isolated incidents and not a sign of a wider crackdown on dissent. He said the government would not repeat the mass arrests of opposition leaders and supporters that followed the 2005 poll.

"It would be absolutely stupid for us to repay these people with viciousness," Meles said. "It has not happened, it will not happen. We respect these noble people."

The newly-mandated prime minister said Ethiopia's "excellent" ties with the United States and the EU would not be hurt by their criticism of the poll. He said he would not be cowed by any threat to cut aid to one of the world's poorest nations.

"The United States has every right to use its taxpayers money as it sees fit. If they feel that the outcome of the elections are such that they cannot continue our partnership, that's fine. We shall be very grateful for the assistance they have given us so far, and move on," he said.

"Clearly we are not a protectorate."

(additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by Matthew Jones)

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