* Ruling coalition expected to win another landslide
* Opposition says govt stifles dissent, free press
* Ethiopian economy one of Africa’s fastest growing
By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA, May 26 (Reuters) - African Union observers said on Tuesday that Ethiopia’s parliamentary election held on Sunday was credible except for a few irregularities, but the opposition dismissed the vote as marred by violations including ballot box theft.
Provisional results in Africa’ second most populous nation are due later this week and few expect anything but a landslide for the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, in power since ousting dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who took over after EPRDF’s long-serving leader Meles Zenawi died in 2012, has pushed on with EPRDF’s highly-centralised statist economic model credited with turning around the fortunes of a country once ravaged by war and famine.
But the opposition — which has one seat in the outgoing 547-member parliament — accuses the government of crushing dissent, limiting free speech, and muzzling the press. The EPRDF denies this, saying the political space is open for all.
“The African Union Election Observation Mission (AUEOM) concludes that the parliamentary elections were calm, peaceful, and credible as it provided an opportunity for the Ethiopian people to express their choices at the polls,” former Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba, the head of the AU mission, said.
Pohamba said 59 members from 23 African countries visited 356 polling stations. Ethiopia did not invite Western observers to this election. About 37 million out of Ethiopia’s 96 million people registered to vote.
The observers said no major incidents occurred and that they could vouch for the secrecy of the vote in 95 percent of the polling stations it observed.
However, the mission said that in 21 percent of all stations it visited, station officers violated rules by failing to display empty ballot boxes before the official start of the elections.
It also noted that a few voting centres had opened ahead of time, though staffers claimed this was due to requests from voters.
Merara Gudina, deputy chairperson of the opposition Medrek coalition dismissed the AU report, claiming the body had failed to report on violations in many constituencies.
Merara told Reuters that security personnel had launched a “witch-hunt” on the eve of the vote by arresting his group’s observers. He also said ballot boxes had been stolen in his constituency outside the western town of Ambo some 130 kilometres (81 miles) from the capital.
“The whole process was a farce. In my constituency, we do not even know what happened to over 80 percent of the ballot boxes right after the polls closed, “ he said. “It was organised robbery.”
The electoral board — which is set to announce provisional results before the end of the week — was not immediately available to comment on the claims.
On the day of the vote Hailemariam rejected opposition claims of foul play.
“They have been campaigning freely. There has not been any repression as far as this is concerned,” Hailemariam told Reuters on Sunday in his constituency in Gununo, a town 330 kilometres southwest from the capital.
Ethiopia’s economy has been one of the fastest growing in Africa and beyond. The World Bank forecasts growth of 10.5 percent in the year starting in July. (Editing by Drazen Jorgic and Raissa Kasolowsky)