SANA (AFP) – Veteran Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power since 1978, has announced that he would seek a new seven-year term after all, at a mass rally in the capital of the impoverished Arabian peninsula republic.
“I am responding to an appeal from the popular masses,” Saleh told the crowd of tens of thousands gathered in a square in central Sanaa on Saturday.
Saleh, who had previously insisted that he would not stand for re-election for his ruling General People’s Congress in presidential elections due in September, said he had been impressed by the size of the crowd that had gathered in Al-Sabayin Square since early morning.
He put it at 1.3 million people.
“I will be a soldier for you as I have been in the past,” Saleh said, hailing the “calls of these crowds who have come here spontaneously”.
“The people you have loved … ask you to stay on,” read one of the sea of loyalist placards brandished by the crowd.
In reality, few people in Yemen ever really doubted Saleh would stand for a new term.
A meeting of Saleh’s ruling party convened to select a presidential candidate had adjourned Thursday with no announcement from the president but few believed the veteran leader really wanted to relinquish power.
On Wednesday, Saleh told the GPC meeting that he was not bluffing when he said, initially last July, that he did not want to remain in office.
But after Saturday’s mass rally, the ruling party formally adopted Saleh as its presidential election candidate.
“President Ali Abdullah Saleh is the candidate of the popular masses and the GPC for the forthcoming election,” the party’s assistant secretary general Sultan Barakani said after the meeting.
He called on rival candidates to take part in a “free and fair election.”
Saleh, a 64-year-old field marshal, has been at the helm for nearly three decades, first as president of the then North Yemen and then as head of the unified state after the May 1990 merger of north and south.
Although a dozen people, including a number of women, have declared they will be candidates for the presidency, Saleh is seen as not having any serious rival for the top job.
Marches have been taking place in Sanaa and other major cities since Tuesday to urge Saleh to seek re-election.
Hundreds of people carrying posters of the president rallied Thursday outside a sports stadium in the capital where some 5,000 GPC delegates were meeting, but police dispersed them peacefully.
One analyst who requested anonymity suggested Saleh was trying to exact a price for announcing his candidacy.
Saleh wants “his aides to publicly renounce corruption… thus dissociating himself from them and effectively blaming them for the graft which is strongly criticized by the opposition,” he said.
The date of the presidential election has not been announced, but it is expected to take place in the second part of September.
The ruling party has already signed an accord with the other parties represented in parliament providing for free and fair campaigning for the presidential election.
The deal reached with the Al-Islah (Reform) party, the main Islamist opposition group, the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), the ruling party in the former South Yemen, and the the Unionist Popular Nasserite Organization stipulates that state-owned media will remain neutral during the campaign.
It also bans the use of public office for the benefit of any party or the use of public funds for campaign financing.
Despite its proximity to oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Yemen is one of the world’s poorest countries.
It is also the ancestral homeland of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and has been the scene of covert US operations as part of the war on terror launched after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.