ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Ethiopia's parliament swore in a new prime minister on Friday in the U.S. ally's first peaceful change of power in modern history, sparking hope for change in a nation that's largely a one-party with a poor human rights record.
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn succeeds former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died on Aug. 20 after ruling Ethiopia for more than two decades.
No vote was held Friday. Instead the country's ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front — which controls 546 of the 547 seats in parliament — announced its choice for prime minister. Hailemariam was unanimously voted in as chair of the party last weekend by the ruling party's 180-member leadership.
Girma Seifu, the only opposition member of parliament, said he sees a brighter future — in time — for Ethiopia with Hailemariam in charge.
"I don't expect swift changes by next Monday, if he has powers to do so. I would be happy but I don't think that will happen," Girma said. Hailemariam, Girma said in an interview with The Associated Press, should consolidate his power so he can run the country properly, then free those in the opposition who have been unjustly jailed.
Since Meles' death, the country's Justice Ministry has withdrawn two separate charges against two weekly newspapers.
"We are full of hope about the new leadership," said Mohamed Keita of the Committee to Protect Journalists. He added that the group has guarded optimism until it sees what kinds of freedoms are allowed.
Speaking to parliament in the nationally broadcast ceremony, Hailemariam said Ethiopia would remain "a stable and democratic nation" and would continue its security role in the region, including in Somalia and by aiding talks between Sudan and South Sudan.
Meles was credited with improving Ethiopia's economy and was well liked in Washington for his cooperation on security matters. But critics denounced his country's human rights record and the few opportunities allowed for opposition parties. With Hailemariam's ascension, civic groups and the opposition are holding out hope he will start to open the country's politics.
Making changes before Ethiopia's 2015 national elections could be difficult, though. Unlike Meles and his inner circle, Hailemariam did not take part in the 17-year armed struggle that unseated brutal communist leader Mengistu Hailemariam, the struggle that saw Meles come to power in 1991. It's not clear how much freedom Hailemariam will have to make changes that the older leaders oppose.
Ethiopian and U.S. officials signaled that the countries' cooperation would continue. Ethiopia borders Somalia and has sent troops there several times to battle al-Qaida-linked militants. The country allows the U.S. military to operate drone aircraft from its runways. The U.S. gave more than $2.8 billion in aid to Ethiopia, mostly in the health and agriculture sectors, between 2009 and 2011.
"I doubt that there will be any major changes in the U.S.-Ethiopia relationship, but there will inevitably be changes on the margins as time goes on," said David Shinn, the U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 1996-1999.
According to Ethiopia's Foreign Affairs Ministry, Hailemariam told the U.S. delegation that attended Meles' funeral last month that his government will keep close ties with America.
Shinn said he believes the U.S. welcomes Hailemariam as prime minister but that it expects improvements in individual and political rights.
In his speech to parliament, Hailemariam vowed to sustain his predecessor's polices including ambitious economic goals "to take the country among middle income economies in just a decade." Meles was hailed for overseeing economic progress.
Despondency, Hailemariam said, "has finally given way to hope; darkness to brightness. More importantly, we have proven that victory over poverty and backwardness is within reach after all."
Still, Ethiopia ranks among the world's poorest countries. Per capita income is only about $1,100 a year.
Hailemariam entered the political scene in 2006 as an adviser to Meles. He was promoted in a surprise move to the party's deputy chair after elections in May 2010.