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Ethiopian Regional Election a Crucial Step Toward Democracy

June 22, 1992

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) _ Ethiopia has held its first multiparty elections, a key step in a difficult transition to democracy but one marred by the boycott of the country’s second- largest political party.

Voters on Sunday cast ballots for powerful regional assemblies. The elections are part of a process to transform this country plagued by despotism and war for three decades into a fully functioning democracy by 1994.

Results are not expected for several days. Election officials in the capital must wait for ballots from remote mountain areas. An estimated 33 million people were eligible to vote.

The Oromo Liberation Front, the second-largest party, boycotted the elections. It claimed its supporters had suffered arrests and intimidation and accused the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front of committing irregularities before the elections.

However, voting in the capital and a nearby town appeared calm and orderly, and international observers received no reports Sunday of election violence or intimidation.

The democratization process began after last year’s violent ouster of longtime Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

In response to heavy-handed, often brutal rule from the capital, as practiced by Mengistu and feudal emperors before him, the new rulers decided to redraw Ethiopia’s map to conform to its checkerboard of nationalities, and allow ethnic groups to run their own affairs.

Sunday’s elections were the first popular test of the policy. The campaign was virtually without issues in a conventional sense.

Turnout was moderate to heavy in several urban polling stations, where a cross-section of the population waited patiently to cast blue and white ballots.

″This is our first time to experience such a democracy,″ said Ayele Asfaw, 45, an unemployed mechanic at a polling station in the town of Debre Zeit, about 47 miles south of the capital. ″We have an experience of obeying the government’s orders. That’s what we are accustomed to.″

But Leenco Lata, the Oromo front’s deputy secretary general, called the elections ″crude and illegal″ and said his group would not accept the results.

″Unless something happens soon there will be another civil war in this country,″ said Leenco. He said that could be overted only if the government put the democratic process ″back on track.″

The Oromo front took part in guerrilla wars against Mengistu and claims to represent the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, who occupy the country’s midsection and comprise about 40 percent of Ethiopia’s population.

The ruling party invited the Oromo front and other groups into the government after its troops captured the capital but remains the senior partner.

The northernmost province Eritrea, which last year capped its own thiry- year guerrilla struggle by vanquishing Mengistu’s northern army, is moving toward independence and did not take part in Sunday’s elections.

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