Meles set for easy re-election
Addis Ababa - Voters go to the polls in Ethiopia on Sunday with little doubt that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi will extend his rule of Africa's second most populous country, which he has ruled since 1991.
Rights groups allege that Meles has meticulously tightened his grip on the country and left the opposition with no chance against him at the polls.
The opposition scored its best results in 2005 and alleged afterwards that Meles' regime stole the election, sparking violence that left 193 protesters and seven policemen dead.
Much of the focus of this year's vote will simply be on how the polls are conducted.
The ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has promised that the Horn of Africa's fourth multi-party legislative elections will be free and fair.
But Human Rights Watch (HRW) has charged that Meles has taken tough measures to avoid a repeat of the "mistakes" that nearly cost him victory in 2005.
"The Ethiopian government is waging a co-ordinated and sustained attack on political opponents, journalists, and rights activists ahead of the May 2010 elections," the watchdog said in the run-up to the polls.
The country's most inspirational opposition leader, Birtukan Mideksa - often dubbed "the Ethiopian Aung San Suu Kyi" - has been in detention since late 2008 for allegedly claiming she refused to seek a presidential pardon in the aftermath of the 2005 polls.
Challenging Meles' 19-year-old rule will be the coalition Medrek ("forum" in Amharic), which stands for the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Forum and groups eight opposition parties representing several ethnic groups.
One of its main leaders is Merera Gudina, whose Oromo People's Congress party seeks more autonomy for the southern Oromiya region, a hub of opposition to Meles which has seen the bulk of pre-electoral violence.
"If we win, we intend to form a national unity government for the five coming years," said Beyene Petros, the current rotating chair of Medrek.
The campaign was relatively calm although main rivals traded accusations over political assassinations: the opposition charged three of its supporters were killed by EPRDF henchmen while the regime accused Medrek of killing a policeman.
Then Communications Minister Bereket Simon on Thursday reported a grenade attack in a border town in northern Ethiopia on Wednesday night, in which he said 13 bus passengers were injured, one seriously.
Bereket gave no details of suspects in the attack.
The two sides wrapped up campaigns on Thursday, with the ruling party holding a huge rally and the opposition criss-crossing Addis Ababa distributing leaflets and urging people to vote for change.
Observers argue that the opposition, despite joining forces under the Medrek umbrella, remains weak and divided and has not recovered from the repression that followed the 2005 unrest.
"They lack the charisma of Birtukan and have not been able to capture the imagination of the citizens," an Addis Ababa University politics professor said on condition of anonymity.
Meles has campaigned on the achievements of his previous tenure and his ambitious plans to develop infrastructure and turn the country into a regional economic powerhouse.
Economic growth is still in double digits, inflation has been brought under control and exports are on the rise.
While Meles' human rights record has come under criticism, some of his partners see him as a strong "realist" leader who can guide the vast country out of poverty.
Foreign criticism of the regime's authoritarianism has been muted, notably because Meles - whose country borders Eritrea and Somalia - remains a key US and Western ally in the fight against Islamic extremism.
Domestically, while the regime's popularity is questionable, it is likely seen as less authoritarian than its predecessors.
Out of a population of more than 80 million, nearly 32 million Ethiopians are registered for Sunday's vote, which will be monitored by the EU and AU.
Voters will elect the 547-strong lower House of Representatives and regional councillors, who in turn will elect the upper chamber of parliament.