ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – Ethiopia's ruling party on Saturday named as its leader acting Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who took over after the death last month of longtime leader Meles Zenawi, an official said at the end of a congress of party bosses.
As chairman of the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, Hailemariam, 47, will almost certainly be confirmed as the country's prime minister in an upcoming official ceremony. Bereket Simon, Ethiopia's communications minister, said Hailemariam would be sworn in soon. It remains unclear exactly when, but Bereket said this might happen early next month.
"Since the party holds an overwhelming majority the party's chair is automatically the country's prime minister," Bereket said. "So Hailemariam will be the country's new prime minister."
A 180-member council of the EPRDF appointed Hailemariam unanimously and also selected Education Minister Demeke Mekonnen to become deputy chairman. The ruling party controls 545 of the 547 seats in parliament, guaranteeing swift passage of its resolutions.
Hailemariam's ascension to the ruling party's top leadership signals that he is not just warming the seat for someone else and that influential party officials are keen to respect the wishes of Meles, who picked Hailemariam from obscurity and made him foreign minister and deputy prime minister.
Some analysts say that it was always clear that the ruling party would pick Hailemariam, who promises to continue the domestic and foreign policies favored by Meles.
"I think the party bosses have no choice but to go through with appointing Hailemariam," Jawar Mohammed, an Ethiopian political analyst who is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University in New York, said on the eve of Hailemariam's selection as party leader.
Mohammed said that the Ethiopian public, anxious for stability after the death of a longtime ruler, had already been "given the impression that (Hailemariam) was groomed to replace Meles in 2015," when general elections are due in Ethiopia. He added that it would have been almost impossible for the ruling party to find "an alternative replacement that is acceptable to the four coalition members and the various factions within them."
Meles, who died Aug. 20 of an undisclosed illness in a Belgian hospital, ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist since 1991. Some praised him for lifting many Ethiopians out of abject poverty, but others saw him as a tyrant who restricted certain freedoms, including free speech.
The International Crisis Group said after the death of Meles that Hailemariam was not likely to be as pivotal and decisive a figure as the man he replaced.
"Given the opacity of the inner workings of the government and army, it is impossible to say exactly what it will look like and who will end up in charge. Nonetheless, any likely outcome suggests a much weaker government, a more influential security apparatus and endangered internal stability," the group's report said.
Associated Press writer Rodney Muhumuza contributed reporting from Kampala, Uganda