Yemenis set to vote in poll featuring one candidate
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With longstanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh (pictured) in the US for medical treatment, Yemenis head to the polls Tuesday to approve a consensus candidate. But can the election bring stability to the fragile Arab nation?
More than a year after the start of popular uprising that led to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure, Yemen goes to the polls Tuesday in a presidential election that will feature just one candidate on the ballot paper.
Tuesday’s referendum-like election will be held to approve the sole candidate, Yemen’s current vice president, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, as a consensus president. The February 21 election is part of a Gulf-brokered deal that Saleh signed in November.
Hadi, the consensus candidate, is standing for a two-year term that is expected to usher in constitutional reforms ahead of an open presidential election within 24 months.
Despite the rubberstamp nature of Tuesday’s vote, at least some of Yemen’s registered 10 million voters appeared enthusiastic about the poll with demonstrators taking to the streets in the capital of Sanaa earlier this week holding signs that read, "February 21 is the day Yemen will be reborn" and "It's over, the reign of the assassin," referring to the unpopular Saleh.
A wily politician who ruled this impoverished Middle Eastern nation largely by co-opting and placating the country’s powerful tribal chiefs, Saleh formally handed power to Hadi in a Gulf-backed bid to quell violent anti-regime protests that virtually paralysed the fragile state for most of 2011.
Saleh has been in New York since late last month to receive medical treatment for wounds suffered in a June bombing at the presidential palace in Sanaa.
On Wednesday, Saleh ordered that the pictures of him hung across the country be replaced with those of Hadi, the state news agency Saba reported.
Days ahead of the election, there was a sense of pre-election excitement on the streets of Sanaa with enormous campaign billboards lining the city’s main avenue and state TV and radio stations urging citizens to go to the polls.
While admitting the upcoming poll is "troubling" from the perspective of democratic principles, Didier Billion of the Paris-based Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques nevertheless believes "it could be the lesser of the two evils and a solution for all”.
According to Billion, Yemen’s latest political compromise was the result of "a tacit agreement between the government and the opposition to take the country out of the current impasse".
Rebellion in the north, separatists in the south and terrorism in-between
With insecurity mounting in the world’s poorest Arab nation, the international community has pinned its hopes on Hadi, considering him the best person to end Yemen's unrest and lead the fight against al Qaeda’s regional branch, AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula).
But terrorism is not the only threat confronting Yemeni authorities. The country is grappling with a Shiite Houthi rebellion in the north and with separatist elements in the south, including the Southern Movement.
"Yemen is a country that has almost fallen into the sort of chaos that has ensnared Somalia," said Billion. “The transition agreement, unsatisfactory as it may be from a democratic perspective, is necessary to maintain stability." Billion noted that, "the United States and Saudi Arabia have directly or indirectly led to this agreement primarily to avoid the situation from escalating."
With a 1,400 km Saudi-Yemen border and a substantial Yemeni expatriate community working in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Riyadh is especially keen to contain the instability in neighbouring Yemen. Since the start of the Arab Spring last year, the Saudis have displayed their readiness to suppress uprisings especially if they involve the Shiite community. The images of Saudi tanks rolling into Bahrain last March made its position on this abundantly clear.
Pre-election violence grips the south
But while there has been some enthusiasm over Tuesday’s poll in Washington and Riyadh circles, that enthusiasm is not evenly spread across Yemen.
Northern and southern Yemen united in 1990, and dissatisfaction has been mounting in southern Yemen under Saleh’s reign over northerners domination of the country’s military and political establishment.
Although Hadi is from the south, the Southern Movement has boycotted Tuesday’s poll and violence has erupted in the run-up to the poll in the southeastern state of Hadramawt.
On Friday, dozens of people were hurt in clashes in southeast Yemen between rival demonstrators supporting and opposing Tuesday's presidential election, AFP reported, quoting unnamed witnesses in Hadramawt.
Thousands of people have burned their electoral cards in recent weeks at the urging of the Southern Movement, according to witnesses.
Billion however notes that protests against Tuesday’s poll are not widespread. "The major part of the opposition accepted the agreement, so it's a minority that’s displaying this displeasure," he said. "In essence, young people who were at the forefront of the [anti-Saleh] uprising now feel betrayed."
Under the terms of the November agreement, members of the Yemeni youth movement who have been protesting against Saleh in Sanaa’s main square will be invited to participate in a national dialogue that will follow Tuesday’s presidential election. But activists say that so far no contact has been established with the country’s future president.
Finally, there remains the issue of Saleh’s return from the US. His short-term US visa is valid until the end of March 2012. A US official, speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity said Saleh will wait until Wednesday to return.
"It’s quite possible that he will return to Yemen to retake the leadership of his party and rejoin the political game,” speculated Billion.