- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 21, 2012

SANAA, Yemen — Yemenis voted Tuesday to install 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 can hardly 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.

Despite the vote’s predetermined result, voting was brisk in the capital and some other cities, prompting election officials to keep the polls open two extra hours.

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 say that a visiting former British parliamentarian, Baroness Emma Harriet Nicholson, was in one of the stations when it was attacked, but was not hurt. Unknown gunmen also seized a few dozen ballot boxes.

Mr. Saleh is the fourth ruler to lose power in the Arab Spring uprisings. But to the chagrin of many protesters, he will likely 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 has built a web of tribal and family relations, could hold considerable sway after Mr. Hadi is installed.

Mr. Saleh is 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.

Still, he urged Yemenis to vote through a message read on state TV late Monday. He also held out the possibility of a 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.”

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

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