“What is very surprising is that you now have in power a Protestant Wolayta and a Muslim Amhara,” a Western diplomat told AFP, noting that for the first time neither of the top two leaders were members of Ethiopia’s Orthodox church.
Meles, who died after a long illness aged 57, was hailed as an African hero and was a key Western ally in a region home to Al-Qaeda-linked groups, but was also criticised by rights groups for a crackdown on basic freedoms.
But in his acceptance speech Hailemariam appeared to address concerns by human rights groups, who have said the new leadership offers an opportunity for change.
“We will reinforce democracy and human rights in the country. If there are problems, we will fix it,” Hailemariam said.
“We will work with human rights organisations, the national elections board and some opposition parties,” he added.
Some analysts say Hailemariam’s ethnic origins in the south of the country will play against him as many key figures, like Meles, hail from the Tigray region in the north of the country.
Others argue that on the contrary his position outside the Tigray power base will work in his favour.
“His ethnicity is considered an advantage, because it is a minority in a multi-ethnic region and, most importantly, not from the numerically dominant Oromo or Amhara,” International Crisis Group said in a recent report.