ADDIS ABABA, 22 July (IRIN) - Two months after more than 25 million Ethiopians went to the polls in the country's third ever national election on 15 May, it is still not clear who won or lost the ballot.
As each day passes, claims and counterclaims emanate from rival political parties, the tone and rhetoric causing anxiety across the country.
On Thursday the national election board appealed for patience, but analysts said the strain of the delay was becoming all too evident.
The opposition has cited widespread fraud, not only in the counting but also in the investigations of alleged poll abuse, while the government has ensured that the security forces and police maintain a very visible presence on the streets of the capital, Addis Ababa.
Tensions erupted on 8 June, when the results should have been declared. At least 38 people in the capital were shot dead during clashes between stone-throwing protesters and security forces, among them a college student and a 16-year-old boy.
"We need to be calm and we need to wait until the process is complete," Kemal Bedri, chairman of the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), said insisting that the elections had been the most successful the country had ever held.
The delays, he added, were because of "the comprehensive nature of the investigations into abuses and fraud, and the election board's desire to oversee a credible ballot".
The opposition disputes this, accusing the NEB of bias - a view sometimes reinforced by senior election board officials when they launch withering attacks on opposition parties in the state media.
NEBE officials said more election results would be announced on Friday but that the winner would still be unknown - so far 307 out of 524 parliamentary seats have been declared, and the remaining 23 are to be contested in delayed elections in eastern Ethiopia's Somali Region.
The ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front has won 139 seats while the main opposition group, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), has taken 93; another opposition group, the United Ethiopian Democratic Front, secured 42.
The NEBE is awaiting details of investigations into 139 constituencies, but has thrown out complaints in a further 75 seats.
Dessalegn Rahmato, head of the Forum for Social Studies, an independent Ethiopian think-tank, said the tardy and piecemeal release of results had not only caused harm at home but also abroad.
The delay is causing a lot of anxiety and uncertainty," he noted. "It is unfortunate, and the results should have been known a few weeks after the elections. Many people feel insecure because we don't know what the results will be and how the parties involved will react to it."
The NEBE should have been prepared, he commented. "This is the first fairly open and unrestricted election in this country - the previous two elections were really not free and fair, and there was no contest.
"This election was strongly contested, and the board should have anticipated controversy and been able to move in as quickly as possible to clear up controversies or make quick decisions, so that the results will be out as quickly as possible, and let the courts deal with issues that arise after that," he observed.
The confusion and bloodshed surrounding the elections has also damaged the reputation of the country, which is struggling to shake off accusations of government oppression of human rights groups by foreign donors.
"This country has not had a good reputation to begin with, and whatever good will there was, when the country allowed the election to be contested by opposition parties, and the government promised there would be free and fair elections, that was well-received by the donor community here and abroad," Dessalegn said. "But this controversy and failure to resolve the issue ... have disappointed the donor community. This is a worrying time."
Feted by Western leaders, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi pledged greater democratic reform when two decades of Marxist authoritarian rule under military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam came to an end in 1991.
He stood alongside UK Premier Tony Blair at the launch of the Africa Commission - the British Prime Ministers' project aimed at promoting good governance and economic development on the world's poorest continent.
Although once described by former US President Bill Clinton as a "part of a new generation of leaders", Meles now faces a tough test in showing that his credentials remain intact.
Britain froze about US $35 million in aid after demonstrators were gunned down, and Washington and the European Union have called on the government to respect human rights, while urging an independent inquiry into the killings.
Information minister Bereket Simon put the blame for the violence and the piecemeal release of election results squarely on the shoulders of the opposition.
From the start, he said, opposition parties had tried to undermine the election process to discredit the government among Ethiopia's 71 million people, as well as abroad.
The latest claim by the opposition that the poll probe was a "complete failure" and jeopardized the entire process was simply a continuation of that strategy, he added.
"Their comments are designed to discredit and undermine the process," Bereket said.
There could be no doubt that the massive increase in votes for the opposition parties surprised not only the government but also the international community.
The largest opposition group, the CUD, formed just six months before the country went to the polls, took almost four out of every five votes in the capital, but said they were undecided as to whether they would join the new parliament in September. Vice-chairman Berhanu Nega said a decision would be taken after reviewing the complaints investigation process.
"The course the government and election board is taking is one that shows unwillingness to put in place a democratic system in Ethiopia, a disregard for the constitution and inability to accept the verdict of the people," he remarked.
Senior diplomats in Addis Ababa said they were having trouble "keeping the lid" on the tension and hostility between the parties.
Face-to-face negotiations between rival parties have been brokered by the European Union but have borne little fruit as yet, diplomats noted. With the slow creep towards an official result, tensions are beginning to rise again.
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