Accusations fly as Ethiopian election campaign heats up

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia -- The war of words between Ethiopia's political rivals intensified Wednesday ahead of upcoming general elections as the country's ruling party accused the opposition of illegally campaigning in churches.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) said the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) was violating electoral laws by sending members to houses of worship ahead of the May 15 election.

The CUD "has been deploying its members to churches to agitate, jeopardizing social harmony and stability," the EPRDF said in a letter to the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE).

Political campaigning and canvassing in houses of worship is illegal in Ethiopia where church and state are separate under the constitution.

The party urged the electoral board "to stop the CUD from its illegal moves and take measures that may correct the party's action or activity."

It added that the alleged violations, which include a CUD member priest at one church distributing fliers to the congregation, indicated the opposition did not intend "to participate in the election legally and honestly."

CUD spokesman Ledtu Ayalew angrily rejected what he termed a "shameless accusation," denying that the priest in question was an opposition member and accusing the EPRDF of lying in a desperate bid to steal the election.

"These accusations come when the EPRDF runs out of ideas," he told AFP. "It is made simply to try to create a rift between the party and the voter in the name of religion."

The EPRDF charge came just two days after electoral authorities suggested the opposition United Ethiopia Democratic Forces (UEDF) umbrella group may have been involved in registering children as young as three to vote.

The UEDF has denied any role in the fraud for which 15 people have been detained.

As the election approaches, the ruling party and the opposition are exchanging accusations and verbal attacks with both sides using allocated television and radio air time to broadcast harsh criticism of each other.

There are 1,845 candidates representing 36 political parties and independents running for the 480 seats up for grabs in the 547-member federal parliament.