The death this week of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has raised concerns about whether the imposing but brittle system he devised and dominated will unravel following his departure, leading to turmoil in America's major ally in the Horn of Africa.
Although Ethiopia has been peaceful during the two decades of his rule, especially when compared with neighboring Sudan and Somalia, critics suggest that Mr. Meles's autocratic style means the stress-test of political transition could destabilize one of the continent's economic success stories.
"The successor issue will be the true test of the coherence of [Meles's party] during peacetime," says Kjetil Tronvoll, an Ethiopia expert at the International Law and Policy Institute in Oslo, Norway. Avoidance of a power struggle will indicate the "party's maturity and its capacity and capability to rule Ethiopia for years to come."
Meles, who was 57 and died after illness, led the country after allied rebel groups overthrew a Marxist military junta in 1991. His Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which spearheaded the insurgency, then dominated politics as the core of a four-party multiethnic ruling coalition.
Regarded as shrewd even by his most vitriolic critics, Meles positioned the country expertly, allowing it to develop according to his unique prescriptions, while being supported by diverse allies. His commitment to development and ability to act as regional peacekeeper – most notably in Somalia, where Ethiopian troops are part of the US-backed alliance battling radical Islamists al-Shabab – meant that around $3 billion of Western aid poured in for food aid, health facilities, and schools every year, while Chinese loans paid for infrastructure such as hydropower dams and a railway network.
The result was almost a decade of economic growth said to be more than 10 percent, improving poverty and health indicators, and shelter from criticism for a ruthless approach to domestic politics.
Under Meles, opposition to the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – which sees itself as a vanguard party leading the transformation of Ethiopia from its poverty-stricken history into a middle-income nation – was decimated. After 2010 elections, one opposition representative remained in a parliament of 547 lawmakers. Dissenting voices from the media and civil society were never encouraged, rarely tolerated, and sometimes punished with lengthy jail terms.
The next leader of the EPRDF and the country will be Hailemariam Desalegn, the former deputy of Meles who was promoted to acting prime minister. The EPRDF is made up of parties representing Tigrayans, a collection of southern groups, the historically-dominant Amharas, and the populous Oromos, who make up at least one-third of a population of 94 million.
Analysts view Hailemariam, who represents the southern bloc, as a loyal, competent administrator for Tigrayan powerbrokers. He is also not seen as threatening, as he does not have the capability to build the extensive political network an Oromo or Amhara leader might have.
"I do not expect him to succeed Meles as the key link among the military, major businesses, and mass organizations," said Terrence Lyons, associate professor of conflict resolution at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "Those key centers of power are likely to remain in the hands of top TPLF leaders."
The choice of Hailemariam is strategic, also. Had Meles been replaced with another Tigrayan, who make up only 6 percent of the population of around 94 million, it could have angered the two more populous coalition partners, says David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia.
The key to a peaceful transition is likely to be whether influential Tigrayan politicians agree on how to perpetuate Meles's system. Those figures include much-praised Health Minister Tedros Adhanom; Meles's widow, Azeb Mesfin; state minister of foreign affairs Berhane Gebrekristos; and one of the TPLF's founders, "Father Tigray" Sebhat Nega. Last week, the Tigrayan head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Paulos, died, while the Internet rumor mill recently claimed that the commander of the military, Gen. Samora Yunis, also from Tigray, had been taken seriously ill.
"The succession struggle, if there is going to be any, will be largely a TPLF affair," says Jawar Mohammed, an expert on Ethiopian and Oromo affairs at Columbia University in New York. "The affiliated parties such as the Oromo People's Democratic Organization only come into the game when rival factions of Tigrean political and military elites reach out to strengthen their side."
Dissent within the TPLF previously occurred in 2001, during the fallout from the disastrous 1998 war with former province Eritrea that cost 70,000 lives and left disputes unresolved. A faction of colleagues challenged Meles for perceived weaknesses – Ethiopia's military superiority meant regime change in Eritrea was feasible – but failed to dislodge him.
Since Meles fell out of sight in July, there have been no public displays of tension within the ruling party, or other indicators of unrest, which Mr. Shinn says leads him to believe the transition is likely to be peaceful and successful. Senior party figures such as Mr. Sebhat and influential Communications Minister Bereket Simon, who during Meles's illness was evasive or misleading on his condition and refused to discuss the succession process, are adamant that there is no risk of instability.
Because Meles appears to have molded a unified TPLF leadership around him, and appointed a loyal set of cabinet ministers from across the EPRDF to serve the government, there are reasons to believe the party line. But the ruling front's secretive and disciplined operation suggests that factionalism would be hard to discern. Years of in-fighting only surfaced in 2001 when matters came to a head and Meles's opponents were purged.
If the EPRDF system does fracture, there are plenty of disgruntled groups in the nation of more than 80 ethnicities that may try to assert themselves. Newly mobilized Muslims – who constitute about one-third of the population – have been protesting what they see as government meddling in Islamic affairs in the capital, Addis Ababa, and other cities. Insurgents ineffectively fight for more autonomy in Oromia, the ethnic-Somali Ogadeni area, and other mostly peripheral locations. And violent opposition to leasing huge chunks of land for agricultural investors in Gambella, near the South Sudan border, has also broken out this year.
"If [the EPRDF] ends up in an internal power struggle," says Mr. Tronvoll, of the International Law and Policy Institute, "this may be capitalized on by other Ethiopian and regional forces, creating instability in Ethiopia and beyond. It is thus a very precarious period Ethiopia is entering, which needs to be followed closely."