Yemen moves along volatile path to democracy

In elections Wednesday, President Saleh faces his first significant challenge in 28 years.

Nine million voters are set to go to the polls here Wednesday in combined presidential and local elections, concluding a heated and sometimes deadly month-long campaign.

Some 90,000 police and troops will deploy in an attempt to minimize the violence that has claimed at least seven lives in clashes between supporters of rival candidates in this country where small arms are freely available and gun ownership is the norm.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who in June reversed his earlier decision to step down after nearly three decades in power, is seeking a mandate for another seven-year term. His reelection is almost certain, observers say, raising questions about the pace of progress toward democracy, 15 years after Yemen became the first country to introduce to universal suffrage to the Arabian Peninsula.

"The prospect of replacing [President] Saleh probably scares a lot of people, because it would bring uncertainty and changes to the settled order," says Paul Harris, director of IFES, a prodemocracy organization based in Washington that will take part in monitoring the election. "But the constitution now limits the president to serving two elected terms in office, which – if he wins this year – would set Saleh's retirement date for his 70s."

Yemen has been an ally to the US in the global fight against terror. But critics maintain that corruption is rife here and the government is largely forced to rule through tribal proxies outside the capital Sanaa. And Yemen has long had a reputation for cultivating and exporting terrorism. The main challenger for the presidency, Faisal bin Shamlan, has been embroiled in election-eve allegations that his bodyguard was a senior Al Qaeda militant planning attacks against US interests in Sanaa.

Saleh, president of North Yemen and commander-in-chief of the armed forces prior to unification in 1990, emerged as Yemen's leader when the end of the cold war led to the collapse of the Socialist government in South Yemen and concluded more than a decade of conflict. During 28 years at the top, he has had to manage a complex network of tribal loyalties and military interests that run parallel to and often override party politics and parliamentary structures.

In 1999, in the first direct presidential elections, Saleh stood against a candidate from his own party – the General People's Congress (GPC) – and won 96 percent of the vote. Now, he is fighting his second election campaign and faces his most serious challenger in Mr. Shamlan, a former oil minister who resigned from his post in 1995 during a coalition government in protest over corruption, representing an alliance of the five main opposition parties.

Hamoud Munasser, a Yemeni journalist, says this is an important election for the development of democracy "because, for the first time, there is real competition between the ruling party and the opposition coalition.

"We used to get only one choice, but we have many choices now – both for president and at the local level," he says.

Yemen's month-long election campaign has shown all the signs of popular participation, with extensive media coverage and mass rallies in every major city.

Half-a-million people turned out on Monday to hear Saleh's final speech in Sanaa. He was dressed in a Western-style suit and surrounded by traditional Yemeni displays of horse-riding and dancing to create a spectacular piece of political theater.

By contrast, Shamlan's finale attracted fewer than 80,000 people. Supporters complained that police were preventing them from reaching the stadium. But people in the crowd were adamant that their man would bring the about changes that Yemen needs.

"I'm voting for bin Shamlan because he's an honest man. I believe he'll eradicate the corruption that dominates our government and institutions," says Sheikh Faisal bin Ali al-Gabri.

Away from the throng, others are more cynical about the prospects for the future. "Nothing will change as a result of this election," says one retired clerk, who has no intention of voting Wednesday. "There is no such thing as an Arab democracy. It's just an illusion."

Hafez al-Bukari, director of the Yemen Polling Center, says the opposition coalition is not competing on a level playing field.

"The GPC is the dominant party, both in terms of resources and control of media coverage," he says. "After decades of the status quo, people don't distinguish between the GPC and the state. They think that all benefits arising from the state are actually coming from the president's party."

During parliamentary elections in 2003, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) expressed concerns that the vote had been undermined by political intimidation, vote-buying, underage voting, and inappropriate behavior by the security forces.

On Wednesday, a 100-strong team of observers from the European Union will assess procedures in every governorate in the country in Yemen's largest monitoring operation to date.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, Yemen must eventually move toward its first peaceful transfer of power, observers say, even if turns out to be in-house affair. The front-runner for succession is currently Saleh's son, Ahmed, who is head of the Republican Guard and Special Forces.

With widespread poverty, rapid population growth, and a weak economy reliant on modest oil reserves that are less than a decade from running out, the challenges facing the country at the next elections in 2013 will only worsen unless substantial and effective reforms are introduced in the new presidential term.

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