Yemen vote ensures Saleh's exit
Aden/Sana'a - Yemen ushered Ali Abdullah Saleh from power after 33 years on Tuesday, voting to endorse his deputy as president, with a mission to rescue the nation from poverty, chaos and the brink of civil war.
Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the sole, consensus candidate, billed the vote as a way to move on after months of protests against Saleh's rule, but the president's sons and nephews still command key army units and security agencies.
"Elections are the only exit route from the crisis which has buffeted Yemen for the past year," Hadi, Saleh's long-time right-hand and former army general, said after casting his vote.
Five people were killed in violence in Yemen's south on Tuesday, where a secessionist movement is active, a reminder of the challenges Hadi will face in taming a nation where half of the population of 23 million owns a gun.
The vote will make Saleh, now in the United States for more treatment of burns suffered in an assassination attempt last June, the fourth Arab autocrat in a year to be removed from power after revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
At stake is an economy left in shambles, where 42% live on less than $2 per day and runaway inflation is driving up food and fuel prices.
Long queues formed early in the morning outside polling stations in the capital Sana'a amid tight security, after an explosion ripped through a voting centre in the southern port city of Aden on the eve of the vote.
"We are now declaring the end of the Ali Abdullah Saleh era and will build a new Yemen," Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakul Karman said as she waited to cast her ballot outside a university faculty in the capital Sana'a.
Voters dipped their thumbs in ink and stamped their print on a ballot paper bearing a picture of Hadi and a map of Yemen in the colours of the rainbow.
A high turnout was crucial to give Hadi the legitimacy he needs to carry out changes outlined in a US-backed power transfer deal brokered by Yemen's Gulf neighbours, including the drafting of a new constitution, restructuring of armed forces and multi-party elections.
An official from the election security committee estimated a turnout of 80%, although final results will not be known for several days.
The vote was backed by the United States and Yemen's rich neighbours led by Saudi Arabia, who - alarmed at signs of al-Qaeda exploiting the disorder wracking the country to strengthen its regional foothold - sponsored the power transfer deal.
A pick-up truck mounted with anti-aircraft guns and full of soldiers stood by another Sana'a University department as hundreds of men lined up to vote.
The poll was denounced in advance by youth activists who took to the streets to demand Saleh's removal. They regard the transfer plan as a pact among an elite they see as partners to the crimes of Saleh's tenure, including the killings of protesters in the uprising against him.
"Today draws a line between the past and the future, between a family regime and a new Yemen," said Rukaya al-Fawadaya, a 25-year-old media student.
The interim government faces a fiscal and humanitarian crisis, and has sought billions of dollars in international aid after unrest has all but paralysed modest oil exports that fund imports of food staples.
The United States has said it will support more aid if Yemen can move beyond Saleh's rule.
The United Nations Children's Fund says 57% of Yemen's 12 million children are chronically malnourished - the highest level outside Afghanistan - and that half a million face death or disfigurement from poor nutrition.
"Progress on the political front is not being matched by international donors. They need to step up to the mark and start supporting Yemen if they want to see it survive the transition. The government is still financially crippled," UN envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar said.
"The new government must act swiftly. Expectations are high and if people do not see some improvement in their daily lives then further unrest is a serious possibility."
The election leaves unresolved a military stand-off between Saleh's relatives, a mutinous general and gunmen loyal to tribal notables. There is an armed revolt in the north of the country and a secessionist movement in the south where Islamists accused of links to al-Qaeda have also made advances.
It was not clear who was behind Monday's violence. But separatists are demanding a divorce from the north with which they fought a civil war in 1994 after political union in 1990.
Southerners, who accuse the north of usurping their resources and discriminating against them, said they would boycott the election because it confers legitimacy on a political process that excluded them.
The streets of the port city of Aden were nearly deserted and intermittent gunfire could be heard. Armed men attacked polling stations in the districts of Mansoura and Khor Maksar in the Aden vicinity at dawn, residents said.
The northern Houthi rebels, named after the clan of their Shi'ite tribal leaders, called for a total boycott.
"These are not real elections it is just formalising the American-backed GCC initiative which aimed to control the Yemeni revolution," said Dayfallah al-Shami, member of the Houthis' leadership council.
"It is just a reproduction of the same regime."
The Houthis have effectively carved out their own state-within-a state thanks to a weakened central government and are locked in a fight against Salafis - Sunni Muslims whose puritanical creed mirrors doctrines widespread in Saudi Arabia.
That has fuelled long-standing concerns on the Arabian peninsula that Shi'ite power Iran is meddling to exploit instability.
The biggest fear is that Yemen's north becomes the stage for a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, backed by the United States.
Washington is leading international efforts to isolate Iran over the Islamic Republic's nuclear programme which many countries believe is aimed at building nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies.
Washington, which long backed Saleh as a foe of the al-Qaeda branch that plotted abortive attacks abroad from Yemen, now backs transition to ensure it has a partner in its war against the militants, which includes targeted drone strikes.
Its envoy in Sana'a, Ambassador Gerald Feierstein, said on Monday that Shi'ite Muslim Iran was fomenting unrest in the northern provinces.
Feierstein also called for reuniting a military in which Saleh's son Ahmed Ali and nephew Yehia lead key units that have enjoyed US support.
They are locked in a stand-off with tribal leader Sadeq al-Ahmar and dissident General Ali Mohsen, whose battles with Saleh's loyalists have left parts of Sana'a in ruin.