Tuesday, February 21, 2012

SANA, Yemen — In an unprecedented move for an Arab state where popular dissent worked to unseat a dictator, Yemenis went to polling stations on Tuesday to vote out President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The election comes after a year of antigovernment protests and conflict that broke the government of this already impoverished nation. In reality, it is meant to be more symbolic than democratic: the only candidate is Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi.

“We want change. We want a new president,” said a shopkeeper, Yahya al-Qadhi, just after he voted. “It’s fine that only Abed Rabbo is on the ballot. If there was more than one candidate, then they would start killing each other and we are sick of the killing.”

Supporters of the president are voting because the transition was commissioned by Mr. Saleh himself, while the opposition wants to formally force Mr. Saleh out of office. The election may be the only thing the two sides have agreed on after a year of bitter rivalry.

Turnout in the capital Sana appeared to be high with long lines outside polling stations in schools and outsides mosques.

On the eve of the vote, signaled his hope to be an anomaly in the Arab Spring: a toppled autocrat who can preserve some degree of influence in his nation’s governance.

“I say farewell to the authority,” Mr. Saleh said in a written statement read Monday by an anchor, Amal al-Sharamy, on Yemen state TV.

“I remain with you a citizen loyal to his homeland, his people and his nation as you have known me through thick and thin,” Ms. Sharamy read as she began to weep. “I will perform my duty and my role in serving the country and its just causes” via the ruling party.

The vote will serve as a mechanism to formally remove Mr. Saleh from power and strip him of his authority.

Though it is hardly an exercise in democracy, it is an important transitional moment for a nation that has been mired in conflict for more than a year, leaving its troubled economy in tatters and many people dead or wounded.

The prospect of an end to the violence and a chance at rebuilding delighted many Yemenis and provoked a noticeable change of mood on the streets of Sana.

“It’s finished,” said Obaid Ahmed, a thin taxi driver wearing a blue scarf wrapped around his head. “The war is over. There are no more checkpoints. Seventieth Street is open — the situation is improving,” he said, referring to a large street that passes in front of the Presidential Palace and has been closed since a fatal bomb attack on Mr. Saleh’s mosque in June. Its closure jammed traffic in Sana for months, making commuting across the city a test of patience.

But there was also a recognition by many that the transition of power was merely a first step, with lots of work awaiting a nation that has become increasingly troubled. One task ahead is the need to restore the ability to fight terrorism as Al Qaeda and its followers have taken advantage of the power vacuum in Yemen to spread their influence and control.

A high-ranking Yemeni official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject said the United States would be playing a leading role in the restructuring of the armed forces after Mr. Hadi officially became president. John Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, said there would be a series of visits from United States officials who would focus on a variety of issues, including military restructuring.

“There needs to be a national army and national military that is going to fight against Al Qaeda,” Mr. Brennan said in a telephone interview. United States assistance will go only to military and security units that are commanded by individuals who “are going to be professional and direct their forces appropriately,” he said. “We believe the Yemeni people are tired of having Yemeni military point their guns at one another.”

Speaking from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Mr. Brennan said the United States “applauds President Saleh’s most recent statement supporting the election and Vice President Hadi’s candidacy, and we encourage President Saleh to continue to play a constructive role as Yemen’s political transition moves forward.”


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