A month out, expectations low for Yemen's presidential vote

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 20, 2012 

SANAA, Yemen — After months of violent demonstrations, Yemen is just a few weeks away from a presidential election that will end, or at least is supposed to end, Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year hold on power.

But with no suspense about the outcome — Saleh's vice president, nominated by both ruling and opposition factions, is the certain winner — there is virtually no excitement, and a lot of trepidation, about the Feb. 21 balloting.

Enthusiasm for the balloting is also dampened by the realization that simply changing presidents won't resolve the instability that has rocked this impoverished nation for nearly a year. The impending vote has done little to temper nationwide protests, and demonstrators in Sanaa continue to throng Change Square, the sprawling tent city that has been the epicenter of the anti-Saleh protests that broke out last March.

"This election doesn't begin to satisfy our demands," said Suleiman Awadin, a student demonstrator in Sanaa, noting that he has no intention of taking part in the vote.

Still, Awadin notes that the election is "a big step in getting rid of Saleh," though that alone hardly satisfies protesters.

One of the conditions for Saleh accepting the agreement, brokered by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, was that he would be given immunity from prosecution for any crimes he might have committed during his three decades in office — including any responsibility for the deaths of scores of protesters shot by government troops in the past year.

But the immunity deal remains controversial — both many Yemenis and international human rights groups have condemned it — and Yemen's parliament has put off a vote multiple times on the law that would grant Saleh immunity. A vote is now scheduled for Saturday, though it's fate is unclear, even though it's widely acknowledged that without approval, the Feb. 21 election likely won't happen.

Also hindering the election plan is continued factional fighting. The recent capture of the central town of Rada by militants linked to al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has led some ruling party figures to warn of a potential postponement.

Even if the vote takes place as scheduled, there's little expectation of rapid change.

Both Saleh's ruling General People's Congress and the opposition Joint Meeting Parties have nominated Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi as a consensus candidate, effectively guaranteeing his victory.

Though never a major player in Yemen's political scene, Hadi has maintained close working relationships with numerous opposition politicians despite being a veteran member of Saleh's party.

According to the timeline of the Gulf Cooperation Council deal, Hadi will serve as Yemen's head of state for a two-year transitional period. During that time the unity government is to preside over constitutional reform and a process of "national dialogue" between the central government and various disaffected constituencies, including secessionists in the formerly independent south and Shiite Muslim fighters who waged a fierce insurgency against the central government in Yemen's north.

But distrust between the opposition and the ruling party remains high, and opposition politicians remain apprehensive that Saleh and his allies could use the nation's instability as an excuse to delay the vote.

As likely, some fear, is that Saleh will remain in the country after the vote. Many of Saleh's relatives still hold powerful positions in the Yemeni military, raising fears that they could play spoiler in a "post-Saleh" Yemen. And, analysts stress, the mere replacement of Saleh will do little to alter the deeply rooted issues within the Yemeni state.

"The February vote, if it happens, will simply be change at the top," said Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton-based Yemen expert. "Removing one figure without changing the underlying structure isn't going to do anything to solve the political crisis in Yemen."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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