BAHIR DAR, Ethiopia (AP) — Ailing ruling party veteran officials in Ethiopia are leaving their posts to a group of younger leaders in the East African nation which enjoys close ties with Washington but is increasingly looking to China as a model.
Newcomers dominated the ruling party's election of the powerful 36-member executive and 180-member central committees. The election comes at the end of a four-day congress of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, held at a regional town Bahir Dar.
But the leadership change doesn't necessarily mean more political space for the country's heavily prosecuted opposition which has only a single member in the 547 parliament seats. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on Monday called the opposition neo-liberal mouthpieces with zero contribution to a developmental state.
The ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, in September clinched a first ever peaceful power transition for the country after late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died on August 20. The sudden death of Meles had caused concern that the government he tightly ruled since 1991, and which remained a key ally for the U.S., would unravel in months.
But Hailemariam, who had served as Meles' deputy since October 2010, was peacefully named the party chairman and later a prime minister in September.
In a rare but frank reflection, Meles' long time senior aide and former Foreign Affairs Seyoum Mesfin on Monday admitted that the death of the late leader was a serious problem that tested the party.
"I think we need to draw a lesson from the problem that was created after the martyrdom of our great leader Meles," Seyoum told 1,000 ruling party elites and their supporters that met for the party congress. He told his colleagues that the aging leaders need to retire and the lower officials be prepared to take the wheel.
Seyoum and eight of his colleagues, all veteran members of Meles' Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), have stepped down voluntarily.
"I am really surprised by the pace, they are seriously implementing the leadership succession and most senior official are retiring," said Daniel Berhane, a political commentator and blogger who keeps a close watch on the ruling party's activities. "With the current pace of things as they say all veteran officials who led the armed struggle would vacate senior government and party posts by 2015."
Daniel, however, stressed that not all parties are moving at the same pace.
"The outgoing executive members of the Oromo Peoples' Democratic Organization (OPDO) will continue to participate in the executive committee with an "observer status",'' he said.
And another competing party, the Amhara National Democratic Movement, did not retire most of its senior officials allowing for a possible shift of power.
Hailemariam and Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Demeke Mekonnen were re-elected on Tuesday as chair and deputy chair of the ruling party. Both in their late 40s, the two never took part in the armed struggle and are considered as part of the new generation of leaders.
The four-day congress, despite the changes to the committees, however, did little to alter major government polices favored by Meles. Hailemariam said the late leader's economic and social policies would remain in place. Meles favored tight political control while forging close ties with China to access loans to boost the country's infrastructure.
Beijing is providing billions of dollars as loans for Ethiopia's fast expanding road, telecom and now railway networks. The Ethiopian Investment Agency says over the last two decades, close to 920 Chinese companies came to Ethiopia to claim the largest share among foreign investors.
Ethiopia holds national elections in May 2015.