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Ethiopia's newest opposition party builds its base among urban youth

In Ethiopia's first national elections since long-serving Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, opponents hope to win seats in urban areas. 

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The leader of Ethiopia's newest opposition party hopes discontent among urban youth will win him support in a weekend election that could otherwise be a clean sweep for the ruling party in Africa's most populous nation after Nigeria.

Over 36 million people have registered for the May 24 polls, the country's first election since long-serving leader Meles Zenawi died in 2012.

His Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been in power for almost a quarter of a century, and faces no reasonable prospect of defeat – the current 547-seat parliament has just one opposition member.

Yilekal Getinet, chairman of the three-year old Blue Party, or Semayawi in Amharic, says it originally put forward 400 candidates but electoral authorities cut the list to 139.

Semayawi expects to win seats in the urban areas in spite of such obstacles.

"The people's anger is increasing from time to time. By the strong opposition from the people and demands for further changes we may win in towns," he said.

Semayawi, which wants less government involvement in the economy, sees itself as offering change in Ethiopian politics, with the vast majority of its members younger than 35.

Some 57 opposition parties are taking part in the polls but analysts say they present no real threat.

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The opposition won an unprecedented 147 seats in an election 10 years ago but most of them did not join parliament, alleging the ballot had been rigged. Many of then spent two years behind bars on charges of inciting violence.

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Yilekal says over 50 party members have been detained by police, and accuses the government of unfairly allocating financial resources to the ruling party and depriving opposition parties of television air time, claims rejected by authorities.

Yilekal's name will not be on the ballot after he was disqualified by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), which ran a draw to pick candidates for 52 parties that had never taken part in an election.

NEBE chairperson Merga Bekana said most of Semayawi's candidates had broken electoral rules by belonging to another party, adding the board had been tough on all sides.

Two ruling party members have been arrested in recent days on charges of breaking the law, Merga said, adding the environment was "conducive" to open politics.

Yilekal was not reassured. "There may be an increment in some numbers but that does not show that Ethiopia is in a democratic process. The whole process is deteriorating," he said. (Editing by Ed Cropley and Dominic Evans)

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