In one-candidate poll, Yemenis find choices

Those who boycotted the elections included independent protesters, Houthi rebels and southern secessionists.

By BENJAMIN WIACEK/THE MEDIA LINE
February 26, 2012 19:45
4 minute read.
demonstrator paints his body to the "New Yemen"

demonstrator paints his body in Yemen colors_390. (photo credit: Reuters)

Yemen’s single-candidate election turned into an unexpected expression of choice as the country’s voters widened their options beyond a vote for Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi to include a creative assortment of write-in ballots, or to opt out altogether.

The choices Yemen’s voters were making were most keenly expressed in Change Square, which has been the headquarters for the revolution that forced Yemen’s long-standing president Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power. People put their thumbs on display, some inked in the black that voters received upon completing their ballots. Others dabbed their thumbs in red for the blood of the 600 people killed in the fighting while others showed off theirs uncolored to announce they didn’t vote at all.

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Fittingly, for those who saw the elections as an exercise in national unity, the three colors are the same as Yemen’s flag.

“I kept wondering whether I should vote or not, then I woke up that morning thinking there was enough pessimism,” said Nada al-Qubaty, a 23-year old woman, who graduated top of her class in 2007 from Aisha High School, the same school where she voted. “I voted to hope for positive change,” she told The Media Line.

In a country wracked by some of the worst violence of the Arab Spring, Yemen could point with some pride to smooth elections. Nine people were killed in the port city of Aden and there was scattered violence elsewhere in the country, but most Yemenis lined up quietly at the polls. But Yemen has a way to go till it achieves the democracy the Change Square protesters have been seeking.

Under a power-sharing agreement signed last November, Saleh agreed to step down in exchange for immunity from prosecution while the opposition Joint Meeting Party (JMP) agreed to Hadi as the consensus candidate for the elections. That deal left a sour taste in the mouths of many in the protesters because it means that Saleh will face no consequences for the death of protesters during the revolution.

Committing himself to a term of office as president of no more than two years, the 65-year-old Hadi is an army officer recently promoted to field marshal. He has been Saleh’s vice president since 1994.  He has never had much of an independent power base and many regard him as a straw man for his former boss.

“I didn’t vote because Abd Rabbo is a puppet and an extension of the old regime.” said Ahmed Al-Wajeeh, a 22 year-old protester, who has been camping at Change Square since the beginning of the revolution.  “It’s just a game. He will not bring about any real change.”

Yemen’s getting its house in order is crucial to the US, which wants a united leadership as a partner in its fight against al-Qaida. Yemen is one of the countries that allows US forces to use drone aircraft to strike at its terrorists, who have exploited the chaos of the revolution to expand their foothold in the country's south.

Those who boycotted the elections included independent protesters, Houthi rebels and southern secessionists who said they felt that the vote didn’t give them a real choice and their vote had no real meaning. Inspired by the sight of voters’ black-inked thumbs, a group of protesters went to the cemetery where those who were killed during the uprising are buried.  There, they dipped their fingers in red ink and placed their fingerprints on the tombs.

Others  protesting what they saw as an undemocratic process used their ballot as a protest. Instead of checking the single box for Hadi, they either penned messages to him or to the revolution’s martyrs.

“I wrote ‘The revolution continues’ on the paper,” Hama Alterably, a witty doctor and blogger, who thus nullified his vote, told The Media Line. “I wanted to see if they would count this as an invalid vote or not”, he added.

Nevertheless, an estimated 60% of Yemen’s 12 million voters turned out for the polls, a higher percentage than in Egypt’s parliamentary elections where citizens could pick from a wide array of parties and candidates in what observers have called the country’s freest and fairest poll ever.

The Supreme Committee for Elections and Referendums (SCER) had not released official numbers as of Thursday, but said participation was high. “We will be announcing the results within 24 hours to 10 days, but the participation rate seems to be much higher that what we expected,” the head of the SCER said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Nevertheless,  those who did vote for Hadi often said they did it so more as an expression of hope for a new, more democratic Yemen in the future than for Hadi, who served as vice president under the 33-year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“There were too many divisions between the pro- and anti-government sides,” said Sana Al-Huthaify, a 20 year-old female Saleh supporter. “I voted to affirm that we are one people.”

Once officially president, Hadi faces many pressing challenges, among them the writing a new constitution, restructuring of the military and reviving an economy laid low by unrest. Its countryside has been the battleground for tribes and Islamists. But the biggest challenges are national reconciliation and transitional justice. The question marks hovering over Yemen’s new political structure will almost certainly complicate his job.


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