x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The election only one man can win - but Yemen is used to that

There is only one name on next week's presidential ballot paper, but most Yemenis view the rubber-stamp vote as a necessary first step in ending the Saleh era.

Hussein Moghram, left, and Osama Shamsan at work inside a tent that serves as a media centre in Change Square.
Hussein Moghram, left, and Osama Shamsan at work inside a tent that serves as a media centre in Change Square.

There is only one name on next week's presidential ballot paper, but most Yemenis view the rubber-stamp vote as a necessary first step in ending the Saleh era. Hugh Naylor and Hakim Almasmari, Foreign Correspondents, report

SANAA // It is being billed as an historic election for Yemen.

Massive campaign billboards have been erected along the capital's boulevards. Authorities have taken out radio, television and newspaper advertisements and sent teams across the country to urge the 10 million registered electors to cast their votes next Tuesday.

The ballot paper will not be hard to decipher. The only name on it is that of Abdurabu Mansour Hadi, the vice president. Under an agreement brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, Mr Hadi will replace Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose desire to prolong more than three decades in power tried the patience of Yemenis fed up with one-man rule and festering crises.

Although to call it an election stretches the definition, the process is seen by most as necessary to get rid of Mr Saleh. Three times the president offered to sign the GCC accord ending his rule, and three times he backed away before finally putting pen to paper in November.

"We have to look at this as a special circumstance," said Mohammed Abu Lahoum, 50, a former member of Yemen's ruling party, the General People's Congress, and longtime critic of Mr Saleh. "The whole process is a political solution. It's a compromise."

That compromise calls for Mr Hadi to oversee constitutional reform and the run-up to open elections in two years. In return for agreeing to let Mr Hadi succeed Mr Saleh, the opposition will share half the cabinet posts in the new government for the first time in Yemen's history.

In addition, a formal inquiry will take place into the deaths of more than 250 protesters, allegedly at the hands of government security forces. The investigation is seen as especially critical if Yemen is to have any hope of overcoming its divisions.

"Without reconciliation, there will be no development and democratic process," said Mr Abu Lahoum, "and many hope Abdurabu Mansour Hadi will be the person to lead Yemen through this."

Yemeni authorities and international donors have gone to great lengths to usher in the post-Saleh era. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which is assisting the effort with support from European countries and Japan, there will be about 5,260 polling stations in Yemen's 20 governorates.

Combined with an elaborate nationwide campaign of media advertisements, voter-education seminars and street-side promotional banners, the effort is believed to be costing tens of millions of dollars.

The election is the first step in implementing all of the GCC agreement, said Darren Nance, UNDP's election coordinator in Yemen. He called it important for "moving forward through the transition process".

But that is no easy task.

Election monitors will have to traverse Yemen's notoriously lawless expanses, facing possible run-ins with tribesmen and even Al Qaeda fighters. They must also grapple with a separatist movement in the south, which opposes the power-transition agreement and Mr Hadi's presidential prospects.

Last week, a suicide bomber blew himself up at an election committee office in the southern city of Yemen.

Houthi rebels, who have fought intermittently with the government since 2004 in the country's north, said on Tuesday they would boycott the election, although they would not interfere with voting in the Saada governorate, which they control.

To avoid bloodshed, thousands of troops will be deployed across the country, said Khaled Al Qadhi, head of operations at Yemen's independent Supreme Committee for Election and Referendum.

"Our goal is that Yemenis vote without pressure or fear of violence," he said.

But the biggest issue for the election is its legitimacy, or lack of it. Aside from there being only one candidate, voters do not even have the option of voting "no" to Mr Hadi. The ballot paper will have one small check box with Mr Hadi's name next to it, according to the UNDP, against a background of an outline map of Yemen.

Mr Al Qadhi said voters could just "leave the box empty on the ballot form" - but why would someone opposed to Mr Hadi even go to a polling station, asked Osama Shamsan, 28, a media coordinator for youth demonstrators camped out in Change Square in Sanaa.

He called the election a "charade" and "a waste of money". "Abdurabu Mansour is simply being assigned to his position, not voted in," he said.

He and scores of young demonstrators have been holding rallies in the square urging Yemenis to boycott the election. They are also distributing fliers that call the GCC agreement illegitimate and contrary to the spirit of the Arab Spring uprisings.

They point out that the president's family still holds many key government positions and that Mr Hadi himself became vice president because of his close ties with Mr Saleh.

Even so, there seem to be many who think differently. Tens of thousands of anti-Saleh demonstrators have gathered around the country in recent weeks calling for his removal and on Mr Hadi to "save the country".

That so many would turn out in favour of a poll that few consider an actual election was indicative of a broader yearning for change, said April Longley Alley, a Yemen expert at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organisation.

"For many Yemenis, there is a desire to have an official break with the past," she said. "The election will be a way to bestow legitimacy on the new president, to symbolically close the chapter on Saleh's rule and to move on to a new phase."

Sheikh Mufarih Bahaibih, 60, a tribal leader from the Marib governorate, has instructed all 200,000 members of his Murad tribe to participate in Tuesday's ballot.

"We want and need this to end the regime and open a new era," he said, disputing those who questioned the ballot's legitimacy.

"This is a real election to us because in the past, Saleh always won."

hnaylor@thenational.ae

Follow The National on @TheNationalUAE & Hugh Naylor on @HughNaylor