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. …