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Polls have opened in Ethiopia for the first general election since the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, whose successor Hailemariam Desalegn is certain to stay in office.

Nearly 37 million Ethiopians have registered to vote and they are casting their ballots at tens of thousands of polling stations across the country.

Western observers were not invited and the opposition alleges the government has used authoritarian tactics to ensure a poll victory.

Al Jazeera's Mohammed Adow, reporting from the capital, Addis Ababa, said voting was going smoothly on Sunday but that the opposition had complained of irregularities in the run-up to the election.

"The opposition is fractured. They have been complaining of harassment and intimidation of their supporters, particularly in the rural areas." Adow added.

Talk to Al Jazeera - Hailemariam Desalegn: Democracy 'not only an election'

Posters of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) dominate the capital Addis Ababa.

The EPRDF has been in power for over two decades and is confident of a win, but insists the result will be decided on its economic record alone.

Ethiopia is now one of Africa's top performing economies and a magnet for foreign investment.

Rights groups - which routinely accuse Ethiopia of clamping down on opposition supporters and journalists, and of using anti-terrorism laws to silence dissent and jail critics - said on Saturday that the polls would not be free or fair due to a lack of freedom of speech.

Tsedale Lemma, editor and founder of Addis Standard, said it has not been an easy run-up to the election for the country's independent media.

"Independent media has been kept pretty much outside the engagement of the run into the election ... we have not been part of the process, the debates, the discourse that were held between the opposition and the government," Lemma told Al Jazeera.

Addis Ababa dismisses such criticism, with government spokesman Redwan Hussein telling the AFP news agency that voters would choose their representatives based on performance.

"If they want to give us another chance they will vote for us," he said. "If they have a grudge, they will not give their vote to EPRDF."

Polls will close at 6pm (15:00 GMT) on Sunday, with initial results expected within two to five days, and final official tallies on June 22.

'Political space closed'

The opposition accuses the government of using authoritarian tactics to ensure a poll victory.

"The political space has been closed," said Yilekal Getinet, leader of Semayawi - the "Blue Party" in Ethiopia's Amharic language, and one of the nation's main opposition parties.

Such complaints are dismissed as "baseless" by the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE).

"The environment created for political parties this year is exceptional," NEBE president Merga Bekana said.

Al Jazeera's Mohammed Adow reports from Addis Ababa

The Election Commission will deploy some 40,000 observers at 45,795 polling stations.

The only foreign election observers are from the African Union, which has sent a team of 59 officials. The European Union and the US-based Carter Center, which monitored the 2005 and 2010 elections, were not invited back this time.

The ruling EPRDF won 2010 elections in a landslide. Those polls were peaceful, in contrast with 2005, when opposition accusations of irregularities sparked violence that left 200 people dead.

The opposition won 172 seats in that vote, but only one in 2010.

This time, that solitary incumbent opposition MP has chosen not to run again.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies