Yemenis vote as Saleh’s 33-year rule comes to end


Yemenis voted in large numbers on Tuesday as President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year hardline rule came to an end in a poll marred by deadly clashes in the south and a Shiite rebel boycott in the north.
Men and women lined up in separate queues even before polling stations opened their doors in Sanaa at 8:00 am (0500 GMT), waiting to cast their votes for the only name on the ballot: Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi.
“Today is the real fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh,” said 25-year-old college student Abdullah Ali after casting his vote at a crowded Sanaa University polling station near Change Square, the focal point of last year’s mass protests demanding Saleh’s ouster.
“This is victory day for Yemen,” he said.
Women also came out in strength in the capital on Tuesday.
“We were surprised at the large number of women present even before polling stations opened,” said Abir Afifi, who is in charge of a female polling booth.
The Arab world’s first female Nobel peace laureate, Tawakkul Karman, hailed Tuesday’s poll as a “day of celebration” for Yemenis.
Karman told AFP the vote marked an “end to the despotism and oppression” of Saleh’s 33-year rule.
In a word of caution, however, she urged Hadi “to work for young people who took to the streets a year ago … If their goals are not achieved, Yemen’s youths will force him out just as they did Saleh.”
Hadi cast his ballot amid cheers and applause at a far more secluded polling station near his home in the capital.
“This is a historic day for Yemen … we will put the past behind us and turn a new page on which we will write a new future,” said Hadi, who according to close aides was surrounded by heavy security because of threats to his life.
Polling day in Yemen however reflected the deep divisions and long-standing conflicts that still plague the Arab world’s poorest country.
Despite heightened security throughout the south, violence, not voting, characterised the day.
At least four people were killed, including a child, and dozens of others wounded in vote-related violence on Tuesday, medics and security officials said.
The 10-year-old child was killed near the election commission headquarters of the south’s main port city of Aden when southern separatist militants traded gunfire with police.
The separatists meanwhile seized half of the polling booths in the city, a government official said.
“Half of the polling booths in Aden have been shut down after they were seized by gunmen from the Southern Movement,” a local government official told AFP.
He said 10 of Aden’s 20 polling stations fell to separatist militants.
Witnesses said militants stormed the booths and confiscated ballot boxes as security forces which were deployed to guard the stations withdrew from their posts.
Southern separatists, who say the election fails to meet their aspirations for autonomy or southern independence, had earlier announced a boycott of the poll and hardliners from the group called for a day of “civil disobedience” to prevent the vote.
In the Shiite rebel strongholds of the north, many polling stations were either deserted or closed.
The rebels who have fought six wars with Saleh’s regime since 2004, also boycotted the election. According to a security official, only one polling station in the northern town of Saada was open.
Hadi, himself a southerner, pledged on Sunday to address the concerns of the separatists and rebels, saying that “dialogue and only dialogue” can resolve these long-standing conflicts.
Yemen’s new president will rule for an interim two-year period, after which presidential and parliamentary elections will be held, a condition of the Gulf-brokered transition deal signed by Saleh in November.
However Saleh’s shadow looms large over Tuesday’s vote.
The veteran strongman maintains a strong hold over the most powerful security forces and there is also speculation that he might return from the United States, where he is receiving medical treatment, as soon as Wednesday.
In a speech published on state news agency Saba Monday, Saleh, spared the fates of his ousted Arab counterparts, urged Yemenis to vote for his deputy to ensure a “peaceful” transition of power.
Results are expected in the two following days, although under Yemeni law it can take up to 10 days before full results are announced.
More than 12 million Yemenis are eligible to vote — 10 million registered in the last elections in 2006 in addition to 2.2 million new voters.
The turnout in the single-candidate election will give some idea of the support 66-year-old Hadi has from his countrymen to lead the transitional period.