As the campaign for Sunday's poll ended, he told reporters on Friday that violations of the country's electoral code should not tarnish what he called a free, fair and democratic process.

"This is, after all, a heated electoral campaign and it would be a miracle if there were to be no incident at all of violations," said Meles, whose Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is seeking a third mandate.

"What I can say is that as a process it has been very open," he said from his Addis Ababa office. "Both the ruling party and the opposition have had ample opportunity to express their opinion freely."

Open process

"The outcome of this election, at least as far as the process is concerned, has been very open and very transparent and incidents here and there, either on the part of the opposition or of the ruling party, should in my view not diminish the significance of such a very transparent and open process."

"This is, after all, a heated electoral campaign and it would be a miracle if there were to be no incident at all of violations"

Meles Zenawi,
Ethiopian prime minister

His comments came 48 hours before polls open in Ethiopia's third election since the 1991 fall of a Soviet-backed dictatorship, the second since the advent of multi-party politics and the first under international scrutiny.

Aljazeera's correspondent in Addis Ababa said almost 26 million Ethiopians were expected to cast their votes on Sunday. The voters would elect in a direct ballot members for a federal parliament and members for eight out of nine local councils.

The head of the National Election Board, Kemal Bedri, confirmed earlier that some abuses of the registration process had occurred.

Child voters and multiple ballots

He told reporters at the board's headquarters in Addis Ababa that some irregularities were reported in the south. He admitted that some children had been registered to vote and that some people received multiple ballots.

The National Election Board of Ethiopia previously said it would study possibilities of setting up polling stations at higher learning institutions across the nation to enable students to vote in the general elections.

About 3000 observers are expected to be deployed throughout Ethiopia on 15 May to monitor the elections.

Sunday's vote follows the release of a series of scathing reports on Ethiopia's human rights record, opposition complaints of widespread intimidation and harassment, and concerns about alleged abuses from election observers.

Human rights criticism

Although most human rights watchdogs and observers have credited Meles with vast improvements in the political situation during his 14 years in power, they have said conditions remain poor and in need of substantial improvement.

Ethiopian voters have registered
in record numbers

In two recent reports, the US-based Human Rights Watch has accused Addis Ababa of systematically repressing dissent in Oromia, the country's most populous state, and of orchestrating ethnic massacres in southern Gambella region.

Meles took issue with both reports, the timing of which he said was suspicious, as well as with a critical February analysis of Ethiopia's rights record from the US State Department.

"These reports are coming fast on the heels of each other on the eve of the election; that alone seems to indicate that the timing itself is curious," he said, calling the accusations contained in them lies.

Denying allegations

"Accusations that the government has been systematically involved in human rights violations, that is a lie," Meles said.

"Accusations that the government does not respond to correct incidents of human rights violations, that is a lie, and I do not agree with this," he said, adding, however, that no country was perfect.

"We have made progress obviously, but it is a work in progress," Meles said. "I cannot tell you that there has not been any incident of human rights violations in Ethiopia.

"I wonder if there is any country on earth where there are no human rights violations."

Controversial accusations

Meles also repeated controversial accusations that elements of the opposition were fomenting ethnic violence that could eventually lead to a disaster like that of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

"Accusations that the government has been systematically involved in human rights violations ... is a lie"

Meles Zenawi,
Ethiopian prime minister 

He renewed a pledge to take whatever action was necessary to prevent the rise of extremist militias in Ethiopia like the Rwandan Hutu Interhmawe, however unlikely that might seem in the short term.

"At the moment it does not have any physical implication but these are ideologies that need to be combatted when they have not yet captured the imagination of the people," he said, recalling Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

"Even the fantastic, even the unbelievable, can become dangerous unless it is combatted," he said.