- 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.

Separatists in the south are campaigning against the vote but it was not clear who was behind the violence.

A security official said that British ex-parliamentarian Baroness Nicholson was visiting a station in Yemen when it came under a hail of bullets. He said one soldier was slightly injured, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. The baroness was whisked out of the area to safety. She could not be reached immediately for comment.

But in the capital, voting was brisk.

Sanaa resident Bushra al-Baadany came to the polling station with her young son.

“I am voting for Hadi as a new leader instead of Saleh because I want change,” she said. “If Hadi is like Saleh, we are ready to have another revolution.”

There are more than 10 million registered voters in this county of 24 million. A large turnout would bolster Mr. Hadi’s mandate and position.

State television played songs praising the president-to-be throughout the day. Ballads with titles such as “Mansour, Son of Yemen” replaced their previously ubiquitous pro-Saleh anthems.

Mr. Hadi is expected to see through the implementation of the power transfer deal. This includes the daunting task of overhauling of powerful security forces, in which a number of key units are controlled by Mr. Saleh’s family members, within six months.

At the same time, he must oversee the selection of a committee to write the country’s new constitution and initiate an national dialogue between rival parties.

Yemenis first took to the streets to call for Mr. Saleh’s ouster in January 2011, inspired by the uprisings that toppled presidents in Tunisia and Egypt.

Since then, protesters have rallied in huge numbers despite crackdowns by Mr. Saleh’s security forces that have killed more than 200 protesters. Hundreds more have died in armed clashes between armed groups and security forces.

Mr. Saleh will not be the only figure from the past to try to retain his power throughout this process. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a longtime Saleh ally who defected to the protesters early last year, said Monday that he expects to continue to “serve.” This is likely to upset both Mr. Saleh’s supporters and younger protesters who want to see all the former regime holdovers out of the picture.

“In the current position or another position, I will continue to serve the nation,” Gen. al-Ahmar told Al-Jazeera TV. “Whatever role the state chooses for me, I will serve.”


El Deeb contributed from Cairo.

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