Democracy gains in Ethiopia, a key US ally in terror war

Initial results Monday show opposition parties have won at least 174 seats, up from 12.

In a sign of strengthening democracy in one of Africa's historically repressive countries - and a US ally in the war on terror - opposition parties in Ethiopia have increased their power in parliament to at least 174 seats, from just 12.

The nation's first relatively free and fair election was held May 15, with 90 percent of the country's 26 million registered voters casting ballots. Preliminary results, released Monday, gave the ruling party a majority of at least 274 seats in the 547-seat parliament. Final results could be announced June 8.

The campaign included surprising signs of openness: massive opposition rallies being allowed in the capital; coverage of the opposition in government-controlled media; and, for the first time ever, more than 300 international observers being invited in to watch the vote.

"It's the best election Ethiopia has had so far," and that's saying a lot, given the country's long history of dictators and coups, says Iqbal Jhazbhay, an expert on the Horn of Africa at the University of South Africa in Pretoria.

The Horn of Africa - the eastern part of the continent that juts into the Indian Ocean and borders the Red Sea - is an integral part of America's war on terror, because it includes Somalia, a terrorist incubator, and is near terrorist havens like Yemen. The US has troops in several Horn countries, including Ethiopia.

Foreign donors provide roughly $1.9 billion a year in assistance to Ethiopia, and they had been pressuring the regime to hold free and fair elections. Opposition parties have cried foul in many constituencies, but even if some seats were rigged or stolen, opposition gains will foster "a much more open debate" in the country, says Mr. Jhazbhay.

The ruling party - the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, which is led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi - has won all three elections since overthrowing a brutal Marxist dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, in 1991.

Having a stronger opposition in parliament could further increase pressure on the government to deliver basic goods and services, like food and housing, to the country's 73 million people.

A sign of the government's desire to meet this already-growing demand is the deal it inked on Sunday with Somaliland, a relatively stable and peaceful region that claims independence from violence-torn Somalia. Somaliland has a port on the Red Sea, which Ethiopia will now have access to. Ethiopia is the world's largest land-locked country.

It is also one of the poorest. Roughly one-third of its children don't go to school. And 76 percent of Ethiopians live on less than $2 per day, according to the UN. But the country has made progress: Adult literacy rates, for instance, rose to 39.1 percent in 2000, from 24.2 percent in 1985. And from 1970 to 2000, life expectancy rose to 44.5 years, from 41.8 years.

Wire services were used in this report.

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