ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – The death of Ethiopia's prime minister pushed his relatively unknown successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, into the spotlight on Tuesday, and he may be merely a placeholder or might hang on to become Ethiopia's next long-time leader.
Ethiopia's communication minister said government policy would remain consistent under Hailemariam, the former deputy prime minister and foreign minister who is now acting prime minister pending his swearing-in before an emergency session of parliament. The ruling party controls 546 of the 547 seats of parliament, all but ensuring Hailemariam's ascension to prime minister.
The country's armed forces pledged allegiance to the country's constitution and vowed to defend it during the post-Meles Zenawi era. Meles died Monday of an unknown illness at age 57. He had ruled Ethiopia since the 1990s.
Hailemariam was appointed deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs in September 2010, right after the ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front's fourth successive election victory. A few weeks after the vote the party's congress promoted Hailemariam as a deputy chair of the party.
Although Hailemariam appears likely to soon take the oath of prime minister, the ruling party congress is scheduled to meet in late September and will decide if he will remain in the post until the 2015 elections. Political observers say the party congress could see fierce competition for the post. One analyst said he doubted Hailemariam could win over the military and intelligence leaders.
"I believe he will face a great challenge of being taken seriously by his subordinates for three reasons. First as he never exercised real power at national level, there is little established fear and respect about him," said Jawar Mohammed, an Ethiopian political analyst now 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," says Negasso, now the country's largest opposition leader.
The ruling EPRDF, a coalition of four parties has always appointed key members of Meles' Tigray Peoples' Liberation Front to key posts, including foreign affairs.
The change that saw Hailemariam ascend the party ranks was described by party leaders as the start of a succession plan that later saw lead party figures leave key government positions to retire or become diplomats abroad. The party said the succession plan would have come to an end by 2015 with Meles' retirement.
Charles Stith, the director of Boston University's African Presidential Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, said Meles' 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 the country's former 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 masters in engineering at Tampere University of Technology on a scholarship he received after obtaining his bachelor's degree from Addis Ababa University.
Hailemariam said in a 2010 interview that he came back to Ethiopia because of family — his daughter had been born when he was leaving the country — and because he said there would be a better situation in the country than during the previous regime.
After returning from Finland, Hailemariam joined the country's Arba Minch Water Technology Institute and served 13 years in different positions, including as registrar, vice dean, and dean of the institute.
After a few years as a member of the ruling party he was first appointed as vice president of the country's southern region and later a president of the region. He gained political points as the southern region progressed economically and as ethnic stability improved.
He joined the national political scene in 2006 as and adviser to Meles, and was soon appointed as the government's chief whip in parliament. He then became Meles' deputy in 2010.
Leslie Lefkow, Human Rights Watch's deputy director for Africa, said Ethiopia's ruling party is strong, but government institutions are not, opening the door for potential instability in 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 EU 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."