Ethiopia’s prime minister and opposition leaders met on Friday to discuss for the first time a disputed election that has dragged out for more than two months and left more than 36 people dead.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and leaders of opposition parties hoped to ease tensions and end the deadlock over who won the May 15 election, when 25 million people turned out to vote in what observers said was the most competitive election in the country’s history.
The two-hour meeting was the first the three major political parties have held since security forces shot dozens of protesters during demonstrations over alleged fraud.
“This is a major breakthrough and hopefully a sign that things can get back on track,” said Tim Clarke, the head of the European commission in Ethiopia, who helped broker the talks.
But the talks were tinged by a threat from Meles, he added.
“The opposition were told by the prime minister they have to make a choice in the coming days on whether they are in or out of the process and face the consequences,” Clarke said.
Opposition leaders have rejected the results from 435 declared seats and said complaints must be re-examined or elections re-held in 299 constituencies.
So far in the 547-seat parliament, the ruling party and allies have 263 seats, the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) has won 108 and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) have 51, according to officials results.
Ethiopia’s ruling coalition and allied parties are now 11 seats short of a majority. Opposition parties held 12 seats in parliament after the last election, in 2000.
The prime minister called on the two main opposition parties to stay in the election process and not to carry out their threat to pull out and boycott parliament in protest.
During the talks, an agreement was reached on allowing opposition parties access to state-run media and curbing “hate speech” in press coverage of the elections.
The elections, which European observers declared as the freest the country has ever held, descended into bitter accusations after allegations of fraud surfaced.
Opposition leaders were placed under house arrest and disturbances led to at least 40 protesters being shot dead by security forces and thousands rounded up in mass arrests.
Election violence has also hit eastern Ethiopia, where a series of bomb attacks killed five. Government officials said the attacks were linked to the delayed August 21 ballot, when 23 seats will be up for grabs.
Elections are also being repeated in at least 15 constituencies.