SANAA, (AFP) — Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, facing demands that he quit, said Wednesday he will freeze constitutional changes that would allow him to be president for life and put off a controversial April poll.
“I will not extend my mandate and I am against hereditary rule,” Saleh said during an emergency session of parliament and the consultative council ahead of a “day of rage” civil society groups and opposition leaders have called for Thursday.
Saleh, who has been president for decades but whose term is due to end in 2013, urged a parliamentary opposition alliance known as the Common Forum to halt their street protests.
Saleh’s opponents also accuse the 68-year-old president of grooming his eldest son Ahmed, who heads the Republican Guard, an elite unit of the army, to succeed him.
Tension has soared in Yemen after the parliament, dominated by his General People’s Congress (GPC), voted in favour of a draft amendment of the constitution, which if passed, would allow Saleh to remain in office for life.
Saleh, re-elected for a seven-year mandate in September 2006, announced in his address Wednesday to parliament, which was boycotted by the opposition, the “freezing of constitutional amendments” and said the elections would be postponed.
Facing protests that have multiplied since the mid-January ouster of Tunisia’s president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali following a wave of demonstrations there and a revolt in Egypt against the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak, Saleh has taken measures aimed at soothing popular discontent.
On Monday, after increasing wages and reducing incomes taxes, he ordered the creation of a fund to employ university graduates and to extend social security coverage.
Unemployment was a key issue in the protests that toppled Ben Ali.
Four people have set themselves on fire in protest in the Arab world’s poorest nation, the last of which was in the port city of Aden a week ago.
Saleh also renewed calls onto the opposition parties to resume dialogue aimed at forging a unity government.
The mandate of the current parliament was extended by two years to April under a February 2009 agreement between the GPC and opposition parties to allow dialogue on political reform.
But talks on political reform have stalled since the authorities’ decision to hold legislative elections on April 27, without waiting for the dialogue process to be completed, and a special committee set up to oversee reform has met only once.
The reforms on the table included a shift from a presidential regime to a proportional representation parliamentary system and further decentralisation of government — measures that have not been implemented.
In addition to dealing with an angry opposition, the Sanaa government is grappling with an increasingly violent southern separatist movement, a northern rebellion and a growing presence of Al-Qaeda fighters in the south.