ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and three opposition parties have signed a set of rules for next year’s national elections amid accusations of a crackdown on dissent ahead of the poll.
The code of conduct was negotiated over two months under the observation of Western diplomats in the capital Addis Ababa. It will become Ethiopian law before parties begin registering in December for the May 23 poll.
“This puts us all on equal footing and forces us to have an election that reaches the standards of a democracy,” Meles told an audience of politicians and diplomats late on Friday.
“It will be conducted peacefully,” Meles said.
But a coalition of eight parties called Medrek refused to participate in the talks. The group is demanding bilateral negotiations on issues they say were left out, including electoral board reform.
The government says Medrek is the most significant threat to Meles, despite holding only 80 of parliament’s 547 seats, and that it can still sign up to the code.
“We will sign only if we are satisfied on substantive issues we want to discuss around the rule of law and we want bilateral talks,” Medrek spokesman Gebru Asrat told Reuters. “Our party members are harassed and jailed.”
The government says opposition parties make accusations of harassment because they know they have no chance of victory and want to discredit the poll.
The new code includes the setting up of a cross-party body to investigate claims of violence and illegal detentions and to intervene if necessary. It also contains rules on campaigning and the use of party symbols.
Ethiopia’s last national elections in 2005 ended in violence when the opposition disputed the government victory and street protests erupted in the capital.
Security forces killed about 200 protesters whom Meles said were trying to march on state buildings to topple the government. Opposition leaders were then jailed, accused of inciting the violence, but released in a 2007 pardon deal.
One of the party leaders who signed the code of conduct on Friday — Hailu Shawel of the All Ethiopia Unity Organisation — had been jailed in 2005.
Ethiopia has never had a peaceful transition of power. Meles took over in 1991 after a rebel group led by him and others overthrew a communist regime.
Editing by David Clarke