Acil Tabbara, AFP
Last updated: 21 February, 2012

Yemenis vote as Saleh’s 33-year rule ends

Yemeni voters ended President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule in a historic ballot on Tuesday, pinning hopes on a new leader faced with the massive task of rebuilding an impoverished and war-ravaged country.

Polling stations closed after a day of voting marred by deadly clashes in the south that left nine people dead, including a child.

The only name on the ballot Tuesday was that of Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, who will lead Yemen for a two-year interim period as stipulated by a Gulf-brokered power-transition deal signed by Saleh in November.

The United States hailed the vote and called for progress ahead in Yemen’s transition to democracy.

“We are encouraged and we congratulate the Yemenis for really launching this process, taking ownership of it as a population, and we will stand with them as they take the next steps,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

“We consider it to be a very strong and positive referendum by the Yemeni people on the transition process that their leaders have agreed to,” she told reporters.

Nuland acknowledged that a one-person vote was not a “true democracy” but called it a “beginning point.”

After voting at a crowded Sanaa University polling station near Change Square, the focal point of mass protests last year demanding Saleh’s ouster, college student Abdullah Ali said: “Today is the real fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh.”

Women also came out in strength in the capital.

In a mad dash to a Sanaa polling booth just minutes before closing time, first-time voter Muneera Raddai, covered in a full black veil, was optimistic her vote would mean a better future for Yemen.

“Today is a remarkable day,” said the 19-year-old, adding that now “we can start building a new and better Yemen.”

The Arab world’s first female Nobel peace laureate, Tawakkul Karman, welcomed the poll as a “day of celebration,” though she warned Hadi “to work for young people who took to the streets a year ago” or else they 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, with close aides saying he was surrounded by heavy security because of death threats.

“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.

The road ahead remains ripe with risk and potential pitfalls, warned Yemen’s UN envoy.

Tuesday’s election must be followed by “a far-reaching national dialogue bringing together all parties, especially those who have so far not taken part in the current political process,” said Jamal Benomar, referring to southern separatists and northern rebels who boycotted the polls.

The deep divisions and conflicts that still plague the Arab world’s poorest country were evident on Tuesday.

At least nine people were killed in the south, including a child, three civilians and four members of the police and security forces, while dozens of others were wounded, 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 separatists traded gunfire with police.

The separatists also seized half of the polling booths in Aden and set tyres ablaze to disrupt movement, forcing officials to end voting there three hours early, security officials said.

The separatists, who say the election fails to meet their aspirations for autonomy or independence, were boycotting the poll, and hardliners from the group called for a day of “civil disobedience” to prevent the vote.

Meanwhile, in Shiite rebel strongholds in northern Yemen, 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 “dialogue and only dialogue” can resolve these long-standing conflicts.

And though Saleh was across the Atlantic receiving medical treatment for wounds sustained during an attack on his compound last year, his shadow loomed large.

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 as early as Wednesday.

Results can be expected within the next two days, although under Yemeni law it can take up to 10 days before the official tally is announced.

More than 12 million Yemenis were eligible to vote.

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 transition.