ADEN/SANAA(Reuters) – Yemen sealed President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s exit from power on Tuesday by electing his deputy to shepherd the country away from the brink of civil war.
Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the sole, consensus candidate, billed the vote as a way to move on after months of protests against Saleh’s 33-year rule, but the president’s sons and nephews still command key army units and security agencies.
“Elections are the only exit route from the crisis which has buffeted Yemen for the past year,” Hadi said at a polling station after casting his vote.
The vote will make Saleh, now in the United States for more treatment of burns suffered in an assassination attempt last June, the fourth Arab autocrat in a year to be forced from power after revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
At stake is an economy left in shambles, where 42 percent of the population of 24 million lives on less than $2 per day and rampant inflation is driving up food and fuel prices.
Long queues formed early in the morning outside polling stations in the capital Sanaa amid tight security, after an explosion ripped through a voting centre in the southern port city of Aden on the eve of the vote.
“We are now declaring the end of the Ali Abdullah Saleh era and will build a new Yemen,” Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakul Karman said as she waited to cast her ballot outside a university faculty in the capital Sanaa.
Voters dipped their thumbs in ink and stamped their print on a ballot paper bearing a picture of Hadi and a map of Yemen in the colours of the rainbow.
A high turnout was crucial to give Hadi the legitimacy he needs to carry out changes outlined in a power transfer deal brokered by Yemen’s Gulf neighbours, including the drafting of a new constitution, restructuring of armed forces in which Saleh’s relatives hold key positions, and multi-party elections.
An official from the election security committee estimated a turnout of 80 percent, although final results will not be known for two to three days.
The vote was backed by the United States and Yemen’s rich neighbours led by Saudi Arabia, who – alarmed at signs of al Qaeda exploiting the disorder wracking the country to strengthen its regional foothold – sponsored the peace deal signed in November providing for Saleh to hand power to Hadi.
A pickup truck mounted with anti-aircraft guns and full of soldiers stood by another Sanaa University department as hundreds of men lined up to vote.
“The regime may not have changed but the people have. It’s the first step towards real change,” said Samir Radwan, a 43-year-old doctor. “Saleh was taking us to hell. We stopped him and we are now starting to build a new Yemen.”
TROUBLE IN NORTH, SOUTH
The election leaves unresolved a military standoff between Saleh’s relatives, a mutinous general and gunmen loyal to tribal notables. There is an armed revolt in the north of the country and a secessionist movement in the south where Islamists accused of links to al Qaeda have also made advances.
It was not clear who was behind Monday’s violence. But separatists are demanding a divorce from the north with which they fought a civil war in 1994 after political union in 1990.
Southerners, who accuse the north of usurping their resources and discriminating against them, said they would boycott the election because it confers legitimacy on a political process that excluded them.
That prospect threatens to undercut the power transfer plan crafted by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with U.S. backing, that enshrines Hadi as president for two years to draft a new constitution and hold free elections.
The streets of the port city of Aden were nearly deserted and intermittent gunfire could be heard. Armed men attacked polling stations in the districts of Mansoura and Khor Maksar in the Aden vicinity at dawn, residents said.
The vote was denounced in advance by youth activists who took to the streets to demand Saleh’s removal. They regard the transfer plan as a pact among an elite they see as partners to the crimes of Saleh’s tenure, including the killings of protesters in the uprising against him.
“Today draws a line between the past and the future, between a family regime and a new Yemen,” said Rukaya al-Fawadaya, a 25 year-old media student and protester in Sanaa, who described Hadi as an “in-betweener” and said protesters should stay in the square until establishment of a true civil state.
BROKEN AS SOMALIA?
Washington, which long backed Saleh as a foe of the al Qaeda branch that plotted abortive attacks abroad from Yemen, now backs transition to ensure it has a partner in its war against the militants, which includes targeted drone strikes.
Its envoy in Sanaa, Ambassador Gerald Feierstein, said on Monday that Shi’ite Muslim Iran was fomenting unrest in the northern provinces where Saleh’s forces tried and failed to crush Shi’ite rebels. This echoed the accusations of Sunni-led monarchies neighbouring Yemen that Tehran is seeking more regional influence via a Shi’ite fifth column. Iran denies this.
Feierstein also called for reuniting a military in which Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali and nephew Yehia lead key units that have enjoyed U.S. support. They are locked in a stand-off with tribal leader Sadeq al-Ahmar and dissident General Ali Mohsen, whose battles with Saleh’s loyalists have left parts of Sanaa in ruin.
Hadi alluded to these rifts in a speech to the nation before the vote, warning they must be healed to steer Yemen away from becoming “as fragmented, splintered and destroyed as Somalia”.
The interim government faces a fiscal and humanitarian crisis, and has sought billions of dollars in international aid to avoid collapse in a country where unrest has all but paralysed modest oil exports that fund imports of food staples.
The IMF estimated Yemen’s foreign exchange reserves dipped to $2.7 billion last year. The United Nations Children’s Fund says 57 percent of Yemen’s 12 million children are chronically malnourished – the highest level outside Afghanistan – and that half a million face death or disfigurement from poor nutrition.