Ethiopia's opposition said they may contest the results of Sunday's national election in court after reports of intimidation and vote-rigging, hoping to avoid the violent street clashes that marred the last poll and left nearly 200 dead.
The election in Africa's third most populous nation is being closely watched by international observers, and by critics who say the U.S.-allied ruling party has harassed voters and challengers.
The poll will likely lead to a new decade of power for Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who seized control of the Horn of Africa country in a 1991 coup.
The largest opposition bloc, Medrek, complained of intimidation soon after Sunday's vote began. Spokesman Negasso Gidada said some of his party's observers had been blocked and arrested in northern Ethiopia, and others had been intimidated in southern Ethiopia.
"We think we may not accept the results," he said, emphasizing that the party would settle any election irregularities by appealing in court.
But Negasso said his party would not refuse to participate in the government if elected, as some opposition leaders did in 2005. About 100 opposition politicians and activists who challenged those results were arrested.
Another opposition candidate, Hailu Shawel, said observers also had been turned away Sunday in different parts of the country.
Government spokesman Bereket Simon, however, said he was not aware of not any election-related problems and when told by The Associated Press of the opposition claims, he said "this is simply, simply an orchestrated lie.
"If they reject the result before it's declared, it means they know how they've been accepted," he said. "They know they have lost it squarely."
Negasso said a group of his party's election observers were arrested Saturday in Tigray. He also said that his party's observers were intimidated in Oromia and Amhara regions, and that voter cards were denied to eligible opposition voters. He also said that the plastic sheets separating election booths in the capital were not private enough and that voters could speak to each other and pass notes under the barriers.
"In many places the secret ballot is being violated. This is very serious," Negasso said.
Meles' Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front denies it repressed its opponents and says candidates have been able to campaign freely. But opposition members say they have been harassed and two of their campaigners have been killed under mysterious circumstances.
The opposition and some analysts also say the government has systematically stifled the competition since 2005, and ensured an uneventful election by enacting restrictive laws that restrict aid groups from working on human rights issues and hinder the media.
While the ruling party and election officials have said the election would be free and fair, Ethiopia is frequently criticized for its human rights record, including by the U.S. State Department, which in a March report cited reports of "unlawful killings, torture, beating, abuse and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, often acting with evident impunity."
Still, the U.S. considers Ethiopia an ally. Both countries want to curb Islamist extremism in Somalia, Ethiopia's unstable neighbor to the east. Ethiopia is reliant on billions of dollars of foreign aid, most of it from the U.S.
Meles' rule has weathered many challenges: droughts, tensions over a disputed border with Eritrea and rebel movements around the country. The Ethiopian army also made an incursion into neighboring Somalia in late 2006 to support the weak U.N.-backed Somali government in its fight against Islamist insurgents before withdrawing last year.
The ruling party has based its campaign on promises of economic growth, agricultural development and improvements in health and education.
At a polling station in central Addis Ababa, dozens of voters queued at dawn to vote. Polling stations in the center of the capital appeared calm and orderly. The government had said observers from the European Union and the African Union could monitor the vote along with 40,000 local observers.
Some election officials had even brightened their stations by carpeting the floor with reeds, a traditional Ethiopian decoration during times of celebration, such as Easter and the new year.
Kinde Moges, a 35-year-old private security guard, said he came early to vote before starting work.
"The party I voted for is my choice because I know its past experience and its future hopes," he said, indicating he voted for the ruling party. He said he thought the party he chose would help his three children get a good education and jobs, he said, to "support me in my old age."
In another area of town known as an opposition stronghold, Mebrie Belete, 25, said he would vote for the ruling party, but said he would welcome more competition.
"They have to do more," he said of the ruling party. "Even the presence of the opposition party in this country has produced change."
Officials said that 32 million people, or 90 percent of eligible voters, had registered. Despite official predictions of high voter participation, there were holdouts.
In a small house tucked into a network of narrow, cobbled streets, the family of jailed opposition politician Birtukan Mideksa said they had little faith in the election.
The 36-year-old single mother and former judge was jailed in late 2008 after the government said she violated a pardon agreement. Birtukan was one of 100 opposition politicians and activists jailed after the 2005 election and charged with treason, but later pardoned in 2007.
‘Nothing will change’
Birtukan's mother, 75-year-old Almaz Gebregziabher, said the family has received no answer to the letter they wrote to Meles seeking her release on humanitarian grounds, as she is ill and has had little contact with her 5-year-old daughter.
She said she was proud of her daughter, but that she wept after each of her four weekly visits to the prison. She said the prison guards told her not to come on Sunday, as the prison would be closed to visitors on Election Day.
"I expect things from God only, not from (the opposition) or anybody else," Almaz told The AP. "I don't expect Medrek to help. Nothing will change with this election."
Associated Press Writer Samson Haileyesus contributed to this report.