SANAA,(Reuters) – Yemenis began voting on Wednesday in elections that long-serving President Ali Abdullah Saleh is expected to win, despite facing a genuine challenge from a former minister.
Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) as over nine million Yemenis vote in a president and municipal council representatives. The election is taking place amid heightened security following foiled attacks on energy sites in a country battling al Qaeda.
“The best candidate for president would be someone who modernises the country and improves the economy. President Saleh is the closest to these issues. He has experience over any new person,” Abdullah, 46, said.
“We were living below zero and now there are roads and electricity and security,” the retired civil servant added.
Saleh, a shrewd military officer who has ruled Yemen since its unification in 1990, enjoys absolute power. He won the first direct election in 1999 but the opposition boycotted the vote.
This time, Saleh is up against four men, the most prominent being Faisal al-Shamlan, a former oil minister who was nominated by a coalition of opposition parties.
The grouping, which includes Islamist and socialist parties, has run on a platform of political and economic reform in Yemen, one of the world’s poorest nations according to the World Bank.
“Shamlan is attractive because people know who he is from his days in government,” said a Western diplomat. “All that means is that he will gain a larger percentage of the vote and Saleh will win.”
The other three candidates have little political experience and are standing as independents. Two are pro-government.
Candidates’ supporters and international observers were at polling centres to oversee voting. Past parliamentary polls have been marred by violence between candidates’ supporters.
Saleh has made security a cornerstone of his election campaign. Officials say some 100,000 security personnel will guard the vote and an additional 100,000 are on standby to combat any militant attacks or violence.
Saleh cast his ballot early in the day: “The Yemeni people are the victorious ones,” he said.
The opposition coalition accuses the ruling party of forging voter lists, and intimidating and arresting Shamlan supporters.
On the eve of the poll, Saleh said police had arrested one of Shamlan’s bodyguards for belonging to al Qaeda in what the opposition candidate called a political stunt to discredit him.
Yemen is the ancestral home of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and has cracked down on militants. It cooperated closely with Washington after the Sept. 11 attacks and al Qaeda attacks at home, including the bombing of a U.S. warship in 2000.
The opposition says heavy security will hinder international monitors. Yemeni activist Fatima Asrar also said international observers may stick to the capital, Sanaa, and avoid rural areas following last week’s suicide attacks on energy sites.
Saleh largely succeeded in combating militants, improving U.S. ties and overseeing a multi-party political scene, but his government is accused of corruption and unemployment is rife.
“I was waiting to turn 18 to vote,” said Siham, a veiled 18-year-old. “The president has done many things for women. Before a women could only be a doctor or a teacher. Now she can be employed anywhere and become anything she wants.”