ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The death of Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, pushed his relatively unknown successor into the spotlight Tuesday amid questions about whether the new premier will merely serve as a placeholder or will become Ethiopia’s next longtime leader.
Ethiopia’s communications minister, Bereket Simon, said government policy will remain consistent under Hailemariam Desalegn, Meles’s foreign minister and deputy, who will be acting prime minister until his swearing-in before an emergency session of Parliament. The ruling party controls 546 of the 547 seats in the legislature, all but ensuring Hailemariam’s ascension.
The country’s armed forces pledged allegiance to the constitution and vowed to defend it in the post-Meles era. Meles, who died Monday of an unknown illness at age 57, had ruled Ethiopia since the 1990s.
Hailemariam was appointed to his ministerial posts in September 2010, immediately after the fourth successive election victory by the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). A few weeks later, he became a deputy chairman of the party.
Although Hailemariam appears likely to soon take the oath as prime minister, the ruling party congress is scheduled to meet in late September and decide whether he will remain in the post until the 2015 elections. Political observers predict fierce competition for the job, and one said he doubted that Hailemariam could win over subordinates, including military and intelligence leaders.
“First, as he never exercised real power at a national level, there is little established fear and respect about him,” said Jawar Mohammed, an Ethiopian political analyst studying at Columbia University in New York. “Second, most of his subordinates are going to be individuals with longer experience and personal stature than him, which means they will overshadow him.”
Negasso Gidada, a former Ethiopian president, said he does not know Hailemariam well.
“But they must know him well and have a confidence in him that they appoint him a deputy prime minister. I have no reason to doubt that,” said Negasso, now an opposition leader.
The ruling EPRDF, a coalition of four parties, has always appointed important members of Meles’s Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front to key posts, including foreign affairs.
Charles Stith, director of Boston University’s African Presidential Archives and Research Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, said Meles’s death could end a relatively stable period for Ethiopia.
“His death is a reminder that leaders who long to stay in office often stay too long to allow the growth of the necessary institutional infrastructure that allows states to sustain themselves,” Stith said.
Hailemariam, who comes from Ethiopia’s south, did not take part in the ruling party’s 17-year armed struggle that unseated communist leader Mengistu Hailemariam in 1991. When rebels led by Meles marched to the capital, Addis Ababa, to unseat Mengistu, Hailemariam was in Finland studying for a master’s degree in engineering.
He said in a 2010 interview that he came back to Ethiopia because of family — his daughter was born when he was leaving the country — and because he thought that the nation’s situation would be better than under the previous leaders.
After returning from Finland, Hailemariam joined the Arba Minch Water Technology Institute, where he served for 13 years in different positions, including as registrar, vice dean and dean.
After a few years as a member of the ruling party, he was appointed vice president of the country’s southern region and later a president of the region.
He entered the national political scene in 2006 as an adviser to Meles.
Leslie Lefkow, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Africa, said that Ethiopia’s ruling party is strong but that its government institutions are not, opening the door for potential instability in the coming days.
“There are a number of worrying scenarios, I think, particularly in the medium term,” she said. “I think it’s a crucial moment for Ethiopia’s partners — the U.S. and E.U. and other international donors who provide a large amount of funding — to set out their concerns that reform and human rights reform is a crucial plank of the country moving forward.”