Yemen vote ousts Saleh, but will new leader bring change?

Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the sole candidate, won the historic Yemen vote. Many Yemenis hope his win will pave the way to a more democratic society. 

Hani Mohammed/AP
A Yemeni man casts his vote during the presidential elections at a polling center in Sanaa, Yemen, Tuesday, Feb. 21. Yemenis are voting to rubber-stamp their US-backed vice president as the new head of state tasked with steering the country out of a crisis that followed the year-old anti-government uprising. The vote can hardly be called an election since Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is the only candidate.
Mohamed al-Sayaghi/Reuters
Yemen's Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi smiles before casting his vote at a polling station in Sanaa, Yemen, Tuesday, Feb. 21.

After a year of unrest, Yemenis took to the voting booth on Tuesday to finalize what demonstrators have long demanded: the removal of Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh from office.

In an uncontested election, the nation rubber-stamped former Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi as the new leader. 

The single candidate election may not have been a shining example of democracy, but it is a moment of historic change for the beleaguered nation, one that many Yemenis hope will pave the way to a more open and democratic society. 

Now the question is whether Mr. Hadi will be capable of bringing about the change that Yemenis have demanded and some have died for in protests over the past year.

Members of Mr. Saleh’s family still occupy key positions in the military that could allow them to influence the government and inhibit the reform process. The country remains fractured, with a secessionist movement in the south and the ongoing rebellion in the north of Houthis, who are from the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam and claim to be fighting for the rights of the Zaydi Shiite community. Al Qaeda has also managed to gain ground amid the instability over the past year.

Hadi’s ability to address these issues effectively and quickly is likely to determine his own success as well as the fate of his nation.  

Crowds gathered outside a polling center in Sanaa to celebrate as hundreds of Yemenis waited to move inside to vote. Some broke into song, while others danced and cheered.

“I think most of the people came here not because they love Hadi, but because they hate Saleh. We hope to make a change,” says Mohammad Taher, an IT engineer, who echoed a common sentiment among most voters.

The youth vote?

A number of youth activists opted not to participate, but they did not speak out against the elections or try to stop or discourage people from voting.

Although Yemen’s youth played a key role in the protest, their leadership was not represented in the transition agreement brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which laid the groundwork for the election.  

“We as youth had nothing to do with the GCC agreement and politics. What is happening now is a result of the GCC. We are not going to oppose it, but we are not going to participate,” says Osama Shamsan, a student who has been involved in protests for the last year. He also says he is open to Hadi as the new leader, adding, “If he’s committed to serving our country in the best possible way we will support him, but if not, we already know how to send him off.”

Odds against Hadi

In the south, final voter turnout is expected to be much lower than in the capital due to secessionists’ calls to boycott the election and threats against polling centers. Voting day saw one major attack in Aden, the largest city in the south that left at least four dead and 19 injured. There were also reports of intimidation and other incidents throughout the south.

Many southerners have long felt excluded from the political process. They were not represented at the GCC agreement.

“Most of us agree that we want to stop the bloodshed, and those who want to start the era of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi want to only with the condition that it’s going to be different, only on the condition that they’re going to have good outreach to the southerners, the youth, and the Houthis,” says Jamila Raja, executive director of Consult Yemen, a political consulting firm in Sanaa. “We’re all skeptical about what’s going to happen. Will Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi prove that he’s not a weak president? The odds are against him.”

What’s next?

When Hadi takes office, many Yemenis will be watching to see how he handles those from Saleh’s inner circle who still hold positions of power. Presently, Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali commands the Republican Guards and his nephew is the chief of the central security forces. If he allows them to retain their command positions, many Yemenis are doubtful that Hadi will manage to make significant policy changes.

“The key to change will be to remove them from the military,” says Abdullah al-Faqih professor of political science, Sanaa University. “If Hadi manages to get rid of them than we can think about a different path for the future.”

With Saleh officially removed from power, the nation will begin working on a two-year transition plan laid out by the GCC agreement. During that time Yemenis will redraft their Constitution and have a referendum to prepare for competitive elections.

Most protesters in Change Square, the heart of the protest movement in Sanaa, say they will continue to occupy the square until the government meets their demands to remove the military from political involvement and to amend the Constitution to better support human rights and basic freedoms.

Sitting in his tent in Change Square, Ali Al-Kamaly watched through the doorway as celebrating voters streamed by. Over the course of the past year, about 40 of his friends were killed, he says, most of them shot, during protests. Like many youths, he has decided not to vote. 

“Saleh was the first obstacle to democracy in Yemen and now the election is taking him off the scene,” he says. 

His brother Hamza adds, “It’s a step toward real democracy.”

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