By Aaron Maasho
BAHIR DAR, Ethiopia (Reuters) - Ethiopia's ruling coalition re-elected Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn as chairman on Tuesday, completing a smooth transition after the death last year of his predecessor Meles Zenawi who kept a tight grip on power for 21 years.
Hailemariam, 47, was appointed premier in September, a month after the death of Meles, who was praised for steering economic growth into double figures but drew criticism from his opponents and rights groups for squeezing out dissent.
Meles's death raised questions about whether his Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four ethnic and regional based parties, would hold together or could come under strain as groups jostled for influence.
Opponents say there is infighting behind the scenes, but there was no indication of major rifts in the four-day meeting of the congress in the northern city of Bahir Dar. Some delegates questioned government policies before a 180-member coalition council voted behind closed doors for Hailemariam.
"The transition has gone smoothly - the first peaceful transition in the history of modern Ethiopia," said J. Peter Pham, director of the U.S.-based Michael S. Ansari Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council think tank.
"Whatever his faults, Meles gave Ethiopia a long period of stability and sustained economic growth," he said, adding there was no evidence of tensions that could break up the coalition.
Meles's policies often involved a heavy role for the state and have delivered strong growth. The economy of east Africa's most populous country is expected to expand by 8.5 percent in the 2012/2013 financial year.
"With the principles set forth by our late prime minister, we will carry on with our efforts to develop Ethiopia," Hailemariam told delegates, sporting a baseball cap emblazoned with the coalition's emblems.
The post of chairman usually lasts about two or two and a half years, depending on when the congress is called. Hailemariam had been elected to serve out Meles' remaining months as chief of the EPRDF. Tuesday's re-election formalizes his position.
The prime minister's post runs for five years with the next election due in 2015. But the 547-seat parliament has only one seat held by an opposition politician and the EPRDF's opponents say they continue to be pushed to the sidelines of politics.
Four region-based parties make up the EPRDF - the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the Oromo People's Democratic Movement (OPDM), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) and the Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (SEPDM).
Critics pointed to signs of discontent when it took a month after Meles's death to appoint Hailemariam, who also heads SEPDM. They also said his decision to appoint deputies from the three other parties was a ploy to ease ethnic rivalries.
Ruling party members dismissed those accusations.
"The EPRDF is a solid and cohesive party - cohesive in terms of leadership, cohesive in terms of having very clear political and economic programs," said Abraham Tekeste, state minister at the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development.
(This story fixes typo in headline)
(Editing by Edmund Blair and Andrew Heavens)