Yemen Votes for Saleh’s Replacement

Posted February 21st, 2012 at 8:55 am (UTC-5)
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Yemenis voted Tuesday to seal President Ali Abdullah Saleh's exit from power, electing his deputy as the new head of state tasked with steering the country away from the brink of civil war.

Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi – the sole, consensus candidate – said the vote paves the way to move on after a year of protests against Mr. Saleh's 33-year rule. But the president's sons and nephews still command key army units and security agencies.

Turnout appeared high in the capital, Sana'a, with long lines outside polling stations, schools and mosques.

But in the south, where local secessionists said they would boycott the election, participation is expected to be very low. The French news agency reports separatists seized half of the voting booths in the main southern port city of Aden. In the Shi'ite rebel strongholds of far northern Yemen, many polling stations were either deserted or closed.

As part of a U.S.-backed deal brokered by Yemen's Gulf neighbors, Mr. Saleh is stepping down in exchange for a blanket immunity from prosecution. Hadi was selected as the sole candidate by a consensus of President Saleh's ruling party and the opposition coalition.

President Saleh is the fourth Arab autocrat forced to leave office by the wave of Arab Spring uprisings during the past year. In a message from the United States, where he is receiving treatment for burns suffered in a June attack on his presidential compound, he urged voters to turn out in large numbers.

More than 10 million Yemeni citizens are eligible to vote. With the outcome predetermined, a high turnout is critical to give Hadi a mandate to carry out the changes outlined in the power transfer deal, including drafting a new constitution, restructuring the armed forces and holding multi-party elections.

The vote was denounced in advance by youth activists who took to the streets to demand Mr. Saleh's removal. They regard the transfer plan as a pact among an elite they see as partners to Mr. Saleh's criminal acts, including the killings of protesters in the uprising against him.

The prospects for a stable, democratic transition in Yemen remain uncertain. The country is the poorest in the Arab world, has a weak central government and a split in its powerful military. Mr. Saleh has vowed to return to lead his party anew. And in addition to the southern secessionist movement and the northern Shi'ite revolt, the country's al-Qaida branch is one of the world's most active.