- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 21, 2012

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemenis voted Tuesday to instate their U.S.-backed vice president as the new head of state, tasked with steering the country out of a crisis created by an anti-government uprising that has raged for a year.

The vote hardly could be called an election, as Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was the only candidate. It was, however, a turning point for the impoverished Arab state, ending President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year authoritarian rule.

Many Yemenis hope the breakthrough will bring stability to their country, even if it does not bring a radically different government.

In an indication of Yemen‘s lawlessness, at least five people were reported killed in attacks on polling stations in the country’s volatile south. Yemeni officials said that a visiting former British parliamentarian, Baroness Emma Harriet Nicholson, was in one of the stations when it was attacked, but she was not hurt.

Mr. Saleh is the fourth ruler to lose power in the Arab Spring uprisings, but to the chagrin of many protesters, he likely will remain in Yemen, where nothing bars him from political activity.

As part of a U.S.-backed deal brokered by Yemen‘s Gulf neighbors, Mr. Saleh is stepping down in exchange for a blanket immunity from prosecution. But the outgoing president, who over the years has built a strong web of tribal and family relations, still could hold considerable sway after Mr. Hadi is installed.

Mr. Saleh is now in the U.S. for medical treatment after an attack on his palace in June left him badly burned and hastened his descent from power. He is expected to return to Yemen after the vote. Still, he addressed Yemenis through a message read out on state TV late Monday, urging them to vote and praising what he said was a new breed of politicians who were born out of the crisis. He also held out the possibility of an ongoing public role for himself, possibly through his longtime ruling party.

“I bid farewell to authority,” Mr. Saleh said. “I will remain with you as a citizen loyal to his country, people and nation … and will continue to serve the country and its just issues,” he added.

His successor, Mr. Hadi, cast his vote at a polling station near his house in Sanaa. The station was changed at the last minute because of reports of a bomb threat. Security around Mr. Hadi was tight.

“This is a qualitative leap for modern Yemen,” Mr. Hadi said after voting. “There will be big political, economic and social change, which is the way out of the crisis that has ravaged the country.”

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, with a weak central government, a secessionist movement in the south, a rebellious Shiite community along the northern border with Saudi Arabia and one of the world’s most active al Qaeda branches.

The U.S. had tried to cultivate Mr. Saleh as a partner in fighting al Qaeda, providing him with funds, drones, boats and training for Yemeni special forces while keeping a limited presence of U.S. military experts in the country for coordination and training. It has also thrown its support behind Mr. Hadi in hopes he will help fight al Qaeda.

But the militants are but one of many threats to Yemen‘s new government.

Five people — two soldiers, a woman and a child — were killed by gunfire outside polling stations in southern provinces, medical and security officials said.

The Election Commission said in a statement that voting was halted in nine southern electoral districts, out of a national total of 301, because of the chaos.

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