SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni men in traditional clothing lined up alongside soldiers and businessmen, under an uncharacteristically cloudy Sanaa sky on Tuesday, to vote in the country’s controversial one-man election, the culmination of more than a year of daily protests.
The vote formally removes President Ali Abdullah Saleh from office after more than three decades in power.
Saleh’s vice president of 18 years, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, will now officially take over as president for Yemen’s stated two-year transition period. Hadi was the only candidate that Saleh’s political vehicle, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and the opposition coalition, known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), could agree to field in the election.
Saleh, meanwhile, said he intends to remain as head of the GPC, while his sons and nephews continue to hold key military and security positions, leading some to wonder if any real change will come about in the aftermath of the election.
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Voters’ blue-inked thumbs were proudly displayed in the capital’s Change Square, where anti-Saleh protesters — who have been camped out for the last year — celebrated the final day of Saleh’s rule.
Draped in a banner that read “Vote for Yemen” and carrying a bullet found during a violent crackdown on protesters last September, Waleed Sabrah, 41, encouraged fellow Yemenis to participate in the election.
“I am not betraying the blood of the martyrs by voting for Hadi,” he said. “We reached our peak; we cannot take any more sacrifices — now we need change. If we stand by each other and stand by Hadi, we can make those changes.
“But the revolution is not over today,” he added. “We are voting and we'll see what happens. But we can still march to the presidential palace, we are still in the squares.”
While many activists are angry that Saleh has been offered immunity in exchange for stepping down as president, which was part of a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, Sabrah said he wanted to start focusing on the future rather than the past.
“I don't care about Saleh. What I care about is the poor families without food, the children without medication. I don't care about trials or arrests. We have to prioritize,” he said.
But Tuesday’s election, which has the support of the international community, including the United States, has split activists still in the square. Standing in the stuffy, blue tarpaulin tent where he spent much of the past year, Mawan Al-Da’abai, 35, said he would not be endorsing Hadi.
“I did not come to the square to vote for someone; I came to make a new republic,” he said, but added, “I’m not boycotting the election, I respect other people's decision to vote but I will not be voting myself. Now we just have to wait and see if Hadi can actually make a change.”
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While turnout was high in the capital, with both pro- and anti- regime camps claiming the election as a victory, violence elsewhere in the country marred the historic day.
After a week of violence — including assassination attempts, a failed suicide attack at one electoral committee office and an explosion at another, the southern port city of Aden saw fierce fighting on Tuesday. At least eight soldiers were reported killed in fighting as separatists vowed to prevent the elections from taking place.
Earlier this month, the southern separatist movement, which is known locally as Harak, along with the Houthis, a rebel Shiite group in the north that has fought the Saleh government on and off since 2004, announced a boycott of the election. Harak earlier warned that it was prepared to use force to stop southerners from casting their votes.
While Hadi, and Yemen’s new prime minister, Mohammed Basindwa, are both native southerners, Hadi lacks support in the region after siding with Saleh and the north during the country’s 1994 civil war.
“Aden witnessed a deadly and violent day,” said Murad Abdu Al-Awasi, a Yemeni journalist in Aden. “Several polling stations were attacked, ballot boxes seized and roads blocked. Turnout was low because people either couldn’t get to polling stations or were too scared to vote.”
Violence was also reported in Amran, Taiz, Lahj, Mukalla, Shihr and Hadramout, while voters in Saada, on the northern border with Saudi Arabia, were allowed to cast their ballots without an ink mark to avoid retribution from Houthi rebels.
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Despite violence and intimidation in the south, some 60 percent of voters nationwide — or more than 10 million Yemenis — turned out to vote for the single candidate, according to the electoral committee.
Many Yemenis saw today’s election as a way out of the crisis that has gripped their country for more than a year. Tawakul Karman, who has become the international face of the Yemeni revolution and who received the Nobel Peace Prize last year, publicly endorsed Hadi, urging the youth to vote for him.
In addition to the country’s million-dollar campaign to garner support and national legitimacy for Hadi, political parties, tribal sheikhs and Islamic clerics also urged people to vote.
Last week, some 200 Islamic clerics issued a fatwa instructing Yemenis that it was their “religious duty” to vote today.
In Change Square, a polling station had been set up for the defected First Armored Division, where a soldier, who wished to remain anonymous, said the entire division had been instructed to vote.
After a year bogged down in political strife, surging food and fuel costs, daily power cuts, job losses and a tumbling economy, many Yemenis are simply hoping for the chance to lead a normal life.
Faud Al-Hamdani, 35, has five children and works as both a policeman and taxi driver.
“We want to live a decent life like people in other countries,” he said. “I'm a police officer but only get 40,000 rials ($182) a month, so I have to drive a taxi as well.
“I don't hate Saleh and I'm not happy about Hadi,” said Al-Hamdani, who cast his vote early in the morning. “I'm just sad that my family can't live properly.”