SAN`A, Yemen (AP) – Yemen’s opposition accused President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ruling party on Thursday of violations in the presidential elections, saying his supporters disrupted vote-counting at polling stations where the opposition appeared to be winning.
Counting is still under way a day after Wednesday’s vote, in which Saleh, in power for 28 years, faced his first real challenger, former oil executive Faisal bin Shamlan, backed by a coalition of opposition parties.
Several hours after the polls closed, the elections commission said Saleh had so far won about five times as many votes as bin Shamlan, with about a quarter of the country’s 27,000 ballot boxes counted. But opposition officials disputed that, saying Saleh received 60 percent of the vote and bin Shamlan got 40 percent, with about 5,000 boxes counted.
Roughly 5 million of the 9.2 million eligible Yemenis cast ballots, said commission chief Khaled Sharif.
Asked about possible violations, Sharif said the commission had not been able to prove the allegations. Zaid Shami, bin Shamlan’s campaign manager, on Thursday rejected the preliminary results as “fictional.” “They are the results the commission wants to announce at the end of the counting,” Shami said.
“In many polling stations where the opposition is advancing, they (ruling party) create disruptions, such as withdrawing their representatives or making trouble, in order to stop the counting,” he added.
The opposition coalition backing bin Shamlan reported 30 instances of irregularities late Wednesday, including observers forced to leave several stations, forced voting, ballot boxes removed and intimidation of voters. But it said its candidate appeared to be doing well.
“Reports coming from the provinces indicate real progress in the voting in favor of the opposition,” said Mohammed Qahtan, the coalition spokesman, without giving figures.
The group reported that at least eight people were killed and 11 wounded in elections-related violence.
Despite the scattered violence, the real test of whether the election will go peacefully comes when final results are announced by Saturday.
Voters across Yemen’s purple-brown hills, green fields and dense cities expressed hope that the polls would translate into prosperity for a country plagued by poverty and illiteracy.
The vote is a major test for Saleh’s promises of democratic reform in Yemen, amid widespread complaints of corruption and the failure to spread new oil money.
If international observers declare the polling largely free of fraud, it will improve Saleh’s standing with international donors, something he’s eager for in this country where the average income is just US$600 (¤475) a year.
The government had declared Wednesday “a day without arms” and threatened to prosecute Yemenis who carried weapons anywhere near polling stations. It also deployed at least 100,000 troops to stand guard across the country.
But the measures did not stop men with machine-guns slung over their shoulders from parading outside voting places. Weapons are part of the national identity in Yemen, where there are an estimated three guns per person.
In the capital San`a, authorities arrested a suspected al-Qaida militant carrying maps and explosives, a security official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give information the media. Abdu al-Janadi, an elections commission spokesman, said the man had planned to carry out an attack to disrupt the vote, but did not specify the intended target.
Saleh has ruled since 1978, first as president of North Yemen and then as head of the unified state after the May 1990 merger of North and South. He won elections in 1999 with 96.2 percent of the vote, but that race with boycotted by main opposition groups and he faced only a former member of his ruling party running as an independent.
Bin Shamlan ran refineries in South Yemen during the 1970s and was an executive for a Saudi oil company in London. He served as minister of infrastructure and minister of oil in the government of South Yemen. He resigned from parliament in 1995 to protest government corruption.