BBC- Birtukan Mideksa is the latest significant appointment of a woman to a key public office.
Ms Birtukan returned to Ethiopia earlier this month after seven years in exile in the US.
She was among dozens of opposition leaders jailed after the disputed elections of 2005 that led to the deaths of hundreds of people.
The BBC’s Emmanuel Igunza in the capital Addis Ababa says she faces a key challenge in restoring faith in an electoral board that has constantly faced accusations of being manipulated by the state – and will oversee elections in May 2020.
There is currently not a single opposition MP in Ethiopia’s parliament.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has carried out wide-ranging reforms since coming to office in April.
These include making peace with neighbouring Eritrea after two decades of conflict, freeing political prisoners and welcoming back armed opposition groups from exile.
The 42-year-old leader has also given half of the government’s 20 ministerial posts to women and last month the parliament chose Sahle-Work Zewde as the country’s first female president, a ceremonial role.
Recently he was commended for appointing renowned human rights lawyer Meaza Ashenafi – whose efforts to tackle the underage marriage of girls formed the basis of an Angelina Jolie-produced Hollywood film in 2014 – as the country’s most senior judge.
After her appointment, Ms Birtukan said she felt her career as a judge would help resolve the conflicts and differences that were likely to arise in her new role.
But she said that Ethiopians across the board had shown they were ready for change.
“The Ethiopian people are ready to build the democratic system they want and to hold the government accountable – and they have showed us that by paying the sacrifice needed,” Ms Birtukan told journalists.
“So, I believe that that public readiness is one good opportunity.
“Even though there’s still a lot to be done, we are seeing many institutional reforms in many directions. These are good opportunities.
“And I believe that fact that this government has proved its commitment for a genuine and true democracy is another good opportunity.”
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