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The Process of Selecting Successor to the Late PM in a Parliamentary System

By Mersea Kidan, mersea.kidan@gmail.com
Sept. 09, 2012

In the morning after Ethiopian Tele Vision announced that Ethiopian prime minister Ato Meles Zenawi has died, Ato Bereket Simeon minister of communications affairs, announced that the council of ministers has decided that Deputy prime minister Ato Hailemariam Desalegn will replace the late prime minister and will hold the position of acting prime minister until he will be sworn in as soon as the parliament resumes work. I was confused when I heard his press release. I was wondering whether EPRDF’s general congress has held a session to elect Ato Hailemariam as the party’s chairman. Now that it is known that the party did not hold such a session before Ato Bereket’s press release, we can speculate that he either was confused about the constitution and EPRDF’s bylaw, or he was trying to play political game to pressurize the EPRDF congress members to elect Ato Hailemariam.

Following that, scholars, who were asked by Voice of America (VOA) to analyze the succession process of the Prime minister, have all analyzed it in an unprofessional way. They first declared that the constitution does not define succession process for situations where prime ministers dies. And some of them went on to declare that the deputy should immediately be sworn in by citing similar incidents in Ghana and in USA. They compared Ethiopia’s constitution with USA’s and Ghana’s constitution. This is like comparing apple to orange because Ethiopia has parliamentary system while both USA and Ghana have presidential systems. If one wants to compare apple to apple, the comparison should be done between constitutions of Ethiopia and another parliamentary country.

Most political parties seem to follow the same method as the scholars. One outlawed opposition leader even asserted that the late prime minister intentionally omitted a clause for succession process from the constitution. In subsequent paragraphs, I will show that in most parliamentary constitutions there is no such thing as a pre-determined successor, because, in a parliamentary system, it is the party not the PM that leads the country. The only opposition party that seems to analyze the issue in a legally and morally responsible manner is Ethiopian Democratic Party. EDP’s leader Mushe Semu first expressed condolences to the families, friends and supporters of the late PM. And  the party’s secretary Ato Mesfin Mengistu, in an interview with VOA, reminded the ruling party that it has a responsibility to  perform its constitutional duty by appointing the successor sooner while acknowledging it is the ruling party’s right to elect the next prime minister.

Now, coming to the point of discussion, In a presidential system, the president is directly elected. So It is imperative that a “successor in case of death” is predetermined so that there will not be leadership gap until the next presidential election. That is why both USA’s and Ghana’s constitutions clearly stipulate who would succeed when the president dies.

But, in a parliamentary system, people do not run for premiership. It is parties that compete to get majority seats of parliament and lead the country. The prime minister is selected among party members (the chairperson in most cases) and approved by parliament. At a time when the premier dies, the deputy will cover until the party elects another leader and have him/her approved in parliament.

I checked three countries; Canada, United Kingdom and India that have similar government structure as Ethiopia, i.e. Parliamentary system.  

In Canada, In the event of a sudden resignation or death of a prime minister, constitutional convention requires the governor general (the representative of the Monarch) to consult the governing party and call on a member to form a government. The deputy prime minister does not automatically assume the office of prime minister. No policy or convention precludes the deputy prime minister from being chosen as the new prime minister in such a scenario, but none assures it either. The party caucus would be free to recommend any new leader of its choice to the governor general. The governor general is expected to follow the wishes of the party, although officially he or she retains the authority to make the final decision.

In UK, death of a PM is essentially the same case as the removal of the leader of the ruling party, such as what happened to Margaret Thatcher – the party simply elects a replacement, and an interim one is appointed to manage the country while the permanent replacement is sought.  Unlike analogous offices in some other nations, including the United States Vice Presidency, a British deputy prime minister possesses no special powers as such, though they will always have particular responsibilities in government. They do not automatically succeed the Prime Minister, should the latter be incapacitated or resign from the leadership of his or her political party.

In India, it is the ruling party that selects the successor when a PM dies. No law or policy instructs the deputy prime minister to be the successor. The deputy prime minister in reality has no power except chairing the Cabinet meetings in the absence of the Prime Minister. In case of Indira Gandhi’s death the party elected Rajiv Gandhi who was not deputy prime minister to be the successor.

Now, it must be understood that when we compare Ethiopian constitution to similar ones, it has no major difference. All parliamentary constitutions do not pre-determine “successor in case of death”.  Is this something that should not be challenged?  …  I don’t think so. But the challenge should be based on objective analyses. Even if a scholar cannot be objective, telling the truth and doing the appropriate comparison is moral and professional responsibility. Likewise, Opposition political parties need to be principled and assess situations based on those principles. EDP as usual showed its civil and principled resolve to situations. Our country needs such principled parties and it is the new generation’s responsibility to strengthen them. As per ruling party, it is a time to test its ability to sustain without its strong man. In order to be able to pass this test, leaders of the party need to win over their personal wishes and elect the successor following the due process as soon as possible.

May the Late PM rest in peace,

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