Tuesday’s elections, in which only the vice-president is standing, will make Saleh the fourth leader ousted in the Arab spring
For 33 years a portrait of Yemen’s president hung above the gate of Al-Nahrayn, a crowded secondary school in the capital, Sana’a. Every morning, the students would assemble in the school’s leafy courtyard to salute the image of their leader and sing the national anthem. On Saturday, students arrived to find the picture had disappeared. In its place is a glossy print of a young woman in a pink headscarf, smiling as she places a ballot into a voting box. “February 21 is the beginning of a new era in the life of Yemen,” reads the poster.
After a year of mass protests, bloodshed and political wrangling, Yemenis will head to the polls on Tuesday to vote their embattled ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, out of office, a position he has clung to for more than three decades.
By the end of February, the 67-year-old autocrat is to hand over authority to his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the sole candidate in the upcoming presidential vote. If all goes according to plan, Saleh will be the fourth Arab leader to be ousted by the mass uprisings of last year.
Tuesday’s vote is the fruit of a transfer deal, backed by the US, that saw Saleh – who is in New York undergoing medical treatment for injuries suffered in a bomb attack against him in June – eased from power in November in exchange for immunity from prosecution over the alleged killing of hundreds of protesters.
Though it avoids both genuine elections and accountability for the regime’s brutal crackdowns on protesters, the deal, hammered out by Yemen’s Gulf neighbours, has been touted by regional and western powers as a triumph of diplomacy.
“It may just have saved Yemen from the clutches of a bloody civil war like that currently gripping Syria,” said a senior western diplomat in Sana’a involved in the negotiations over Saleh’s departure.
On the streets of Sana’a, Saleh’s influence appears to be fading. Only a few portraits are left, faded and wrinkled, hanging from the tops of lamp-posts like wilted flowers. But with the wily ruler set to return to Yemen after the elections as head of the GPC ruling party, and his sons and nephews still controlling most of Yemen’s military and security apparatus, protesters fear Saleh will still wield influence from behind the scenes.
“There is no rule barring Ali Abdullah Saleh from continuing his career as a politician,” said Abdul al-Janadi, the deputy information minister. “We all expect him to remain in the political picture for the foreseeable future.”
The vote has opened up a rift in the anti-Saleh camp. Some are decrying it as a “farce” that does little more than maintain the status quo and quell dissent from the already-established political elites.
“It’s not an election, it’s an opinion poll … There’s no democracy in ‘voting’ for one candidate,” said Yusra Ahmed, a 22-year-old youth activist. “Hadi never recognised the revolution so how can I recognise him and give him my vote?”
Others see the elections as a necessary, if uninspiring, measure needed to close the lid on Saleh’s regime.
“Hadi’s presidency is one of the successes of the Yemeni youth revolution that ousted Saleh from power … I urge the youth to participate and vote,” Tawakul Karman, a key figurehead in Yemen’s populist uprising and the winner of last year’s Nobel peace prize, told the Guardian. Karman vowed to remain camped out in her tent, along with the thousands of other anti-government demonstrators in Sana’a, to “monitor” the new cabinet and its performance.
“Youth marches and peaceful sit-ins will remain the effective and constant means for demanding immediate accountability for any violation of public office or breach of the law,” she said.
The million-dollar election campaign meant to ramp up support for the one-candidate vote – barely a wall in the capital is without a poster of Hadi’s solemn face overlaid on Yemen’s tricolour flag – has done little to quieten splinter groups outside the capital.
Southern separatists, who want to restore a socialist state which Saleh merged with the north in 1990, have called on their supporters to boycott the vote, as have the Houthis, a rebel group in the north, who are running the entire province of Sa’ada after wresting it from government control last year.
A string of assassination attempts by Islamic militants, including a botched suicide attack on an electoral committee office in the southern port city of Aden last week, have stoked fears that Tuesday’s election could be marred by further violence.
After a year of soaring food, water and gas prices, mass layoffs, daily power cuts and an economic crisis that has brought the country to the brink of famine, many Yemenis are hoping the deal to remove Saleh will help ease the hardship of their daily lives.
“We’ve had enough,” said Ali al-Faizi, the owner of a cramped restaurant in the old city of Sana’a, “The cost of living is too high and the country is too unstable. It’s all about food and worry these days. Most Yemenis just want a way out of this mess.”
from Tom Finn