x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Yemeni election is far from ideal, but brings hope

Tomorrow's vote in Yemen is not so much regime change as a truce of exhaustion. But the one-man election is good for the country, and a source of hope.

As Yemenis prepare to vote tomorrow, thousands of photos of Abdrabu Mansour Hadi, the vice-president, have suddenly blossomed all over Sanaa, the capital city. In many cases the images have replaced pictures of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the only president most Yemenis can remember.

The photos do not, unfortunately, signal any spontaneous outpouring of public enthusiasm. Yemenis will surely take some pleasure in Mr Saleh's departure from office, but Mr Hadi has worked with the ousted president since 1994 and is the only candidate on the ballot tomorrow. So he is not exactly a symbol of wholehearted change.

Yet this tainted transition appears to be all the change Yemenis can handle right now, and so should be welcomed as progress of some sort.

After decades of simmering poverty and unresponsive government, Yemen's people launched into widespread protest a year ago. Since then, bloody demonstrations and bloodier reprisals have led to a stalemate, creating fertile conditions for renewed regional and tribal strife, and for Al Qaeda seeking to make headway. Along with an imploding economy and the cascading breakdown of basic services, the long crisis has brought Yemen close to the brink of failed-state status.

In these conditions Mr Saleh, other regime figures, the armed forces and the protesters - not to mention the public at large - all desperately needed peace. The result is this one-man election based on a hard-won deal brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council: Mr Hadi will have a two-year mandate, presiding over a national-unity cabinet and a "national conference" intended to open a new era of compromise and pave the way for open elections in 2014. Two years will give all factions time to begin learning democratic electoral politics.

Southern secessionists and insurgent groups including the potent Houthi are boycotting this week's vote; so are some protesters who want greater change. But observers say the voter turnout is expected to be substantial.

In many countries, a non-contest to ratify a deal among elites would be regarded as a travesty of democracy and a recipe for more trouble. But considering the depth and breadth of Yemen's troubles, this process seems to be a necessary if incomplete step - perhaps the only possible step - away from the precipice of the country becoming a failed state.