Yemen Moves along Volatile Path to Democracy ; in Elections Wednesday, President Saleh Faces His First Significant Challenge in 28 Years

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Nine million voters are set to go to the polls here Wednesday in combined presidential and local elections, concluding a heated and sometimes deadly month-long campaign.

Some 90,000 police and troops will deploy in an attempt to minimize the violence that has claimed at least seven lives in clashes between supporters of rival candidates in this country where small arms are freely available and gun ownership is the norm.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who in June reversed his earlier decision to step down after nearly three decades in power, is seeking a mandate for another seven-year term. His reelection is almost certain, observers say, raising questions about the pace of progress toward democracy, 15 years after Yemen became the first country to introduce to universal suffrage to the Arabian Peninsula.

"The prospect of replacing [President] Saleh probably scares a lot of people, because it would bring uncertainty and changes to the settled order," says Paul Harris, director of IFES, a prodemocracy organization based in Washington that will take part in monitoring the election. "But the constitution now limits the president to serving two elected terms in office, which - if he wins this year - would set Saleh's retirement date for his 70s."

Yemen has been an ally to the US in the global fight against terror. But critics maintain that corruption is rife here and the government is largely forced to rule through tribal proxies outside the capital Sanaa. And Yemen has long had a reputation for cultivating and exporting terrorism. The main challenger for the presidency, Faisal bin Shamlan, has been embroiled in election-eve allegations that his bodyguard was a senior Al Qaeda militant planning attacks against US interests in Sanaa.

Saleh, president of North Yemen and commander-in-chief of the armed forces prior to unification in 1990, emerged as Yemen's leader when the end of the cold war led to the collapse of the Socialist government in South Yemen and concluded more than a decade of conflict. During 28 years at the top, he has had to manage a complex network of tribal loyalties and military interests that run parallel to and often override party politics and parliamentary structures.

In 1999, in the first direct presidential elections, Saleh stood against a candidate from his own party - the General People's Congress (GPC) - and won 96 percent of the vote. Now, he is fighting his second election campaign and faces his most serious challenger in Mr. Shamlan, a former oil minister who resigned from his post in 1995 during a coalition government in protest over corruption, representing an alliance of the five main opposition parties.

Hamoud Munasser, a Yemeni journalist, says this is an important election for the development of democracy "because, for the first time, there is real competition between the ruling party and the opposition coalition. …