The Ethiopian parliament is to install Hailemariam Desalegn as the country's new prime minister following the state funeral of Meles Zenawi on 2 September. Hailemariam will lead Ethiopia until the elections scheduled for 2015, finishing the five-year term of government begun by his predecessor, according to a government spokesperson.
In an attempt to ensure a smooth transfer of power, the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) says it is united behind Hailemariam – who served as deputy and foreign minister to Meles – and insists that the policies of Meles will continue.
Although the EPRDF says there is no scenario under which Hailemariam would not remain as premier, political analysts believe that the new incumbent could face a leadership challenge which might result in a change of prime minister. Possible contenders are thought to include the wife of Zenawi Meles, Azeb Mesfin; and Berhane Gebre Kristos, a former Ethiopian ambassador in Europe and America.
Seen as a member of Ethiopia's new generation of politicians, without a history as a rebel fighter, Hailemariam is well-regarded by his political peers but is not widely known to the Ethiopian people. He has a strong academic background, studying engineering in Addis Ababa and Finland. However many believe that Hailemariam does not possess the same clout as his predecessor and his leadership is likely to be tested by the growing ethnic divisions in his country. Significantly, the new prime minister comes from southern Ethiopia, not from the northern province of Tigre whose politicians have dominated Ethiopian politics for until now. Hailemariam also belongs to a different ethnic group to Meles.
The International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think-tank, has voiced concerns that the weaknesses of the former Meles regime are "likely to be exposed and the repercussions could be felt across the region". The group has warned of instability and believes that Hailemariam could be just "a figurehead stopgap" leading a "stopgap" government before the 2015 elections.
The constitutional transfer of power to Hailemariam will mark a new political era in Ethiopia, which has had only three major leaders since 1930: Haile Selassie, Mengistu Hailemariam and Meles.