Ethiopians voted on Sunday in national elections that are expected to return long-serving Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to power in the first ballot since a disputed poll in 2005 turned violent.
But key opposition leaders cried foul within hours of the polls opening.
The ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) says it has won popularity during a period of economic growth by building roads, hydropower dams and supplying electricity to villages in a country where nearly 10 percent of the population needed emergency food aid last year.
Thijs Berman, the European Union's chief observer, said his impression from a visit to a polling station in the capital Addis Ababa was "very positive" and that the turnout there was already 60 percent by 11 a.m. (0800 GMT).
"I haven't seen anything that would inspire any anxiety. It is a very peaceful Sunday. People are voting, which is the most important thing to do in a democracy," he told reporters.
Berman said he had received vague reports of irregularities from one candidate but he had no idea at this stage how serious or widespread they might be.
Polls opened around the country at 6 a.m. (0300 GMT) and will close at 6 p.m. Some 32 million Ethiopians, 90 percent of eligible voters, will make their choices at more than 43,000 polling stations.
In 2005, riots broke out in Addis Ababa when the EPRDF was declared winner. Security forces killed 193 protesters and seven policemen also died in trouble that tarnished the reputation of one of the world's biggest aid recipients.
"Not free and fair"
The opposition accused the ruling EPRDF party of barring opposition observers from polling stations and rigging the ballot.
But in the opposition stronghold of Oromia, the home of Ethiopia's biggest ethnic group with 27 million out of 80 million people, one party leader said there was absolutely no way the election could be considered fair.
"The whole game is controlled by the local administration ... as you see there are a lot of policemen in this very small village," Merera Gudina of the Oromo People's Congress (OPC) told Reuters in the village of Kolba Lincha.
"So this election is not, really, in any standard, even by African standards, it is not fair and free," he said.
Oromia is seen by analysts as key to the future of sub-Saharan Africa's second most populous nation, a country that is Washington's main ally in the region and a growing destination for foreign direct investment.
The OPC is in the eight-party coalition Medrek, or Forum, that is united chiefly by its desire to unseat Meles and is seen as the greatest threat to the EPRDF.
Meles became leader of Ethiopia in 1991 when a rebel group led by him ousted a communist regime that killed hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians in a 17-year rule.
Medrek is running 421 candidates for the 547-seat federal parliament, not as high as the EPRDF's 521, but enough to form a clear majority should they pull off a shock win.
The next biggest opposition parties, the All Ethiopian Unity Organisation and the Ethiopian Democratic Party are running 350 and 250 candidates respectively.
Outside the capital, both sides say members have died in politically motivated killings. Diplomats and staff of some foreign charities have been banned from leaving Addis Ababa without permission from authorities until after the poll.
In Tigray, the ruling party is facing a challenge from former members who fought with Meles over economic policy and how to deal with rival Eritrea.
The 55-year-old leader, who has represented Africa at international meetings, was lionised by the West in 1991. Then U.S. President Bill Clinton called him one of a "new generation" of leaders who would bring democracy to the continent.
But Meles has increasingly been criticised by rights groups who say he is becoming more autocratic and stifles dissent in the country of 80 million people.
AgenciesLast Mod: 23 Mayıs 2010, 18:11