Yemen Election: One Person, One Vote, One Candidate

Feb 21, 2012
Originally published on February 21, 2012 6:56 pm

Millions of people in Yemen turned out to vote Tuesday in an unusual presidential election. There was only one candidate and only one way to vote — yes.

That candidate, Abdrabu Mansour Hadi, was the vice president under Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for more than three decades. Saleh finally agreed to step down and transfer power to his vice president after nearly a year of mass protests against his rule.

In the outgoing president's dusty hometown, about an hour's drive outside the capital, Sanaa, and inside a school that served as a polling station, several pictures of Saleh preside over the proceedings, as he has for 33 years in Yemen.

People say that they are voting for the new Yemen, the new start. But it seems as if they are doing it because it's what Saleh wants them to do.

"I cried today as I voted," says Raysa al-Sayani. "We loved our president. But if he says his deputy is the best man for Yemen, then he is the best man for Yemen."

If a man marries into your family, she adds, you have to call him stepfather.

But in Shumaila, one of the Yemeni capital's poorest and most crowded neighborhoods, the people are half with Saleh, half against.

The stench of rot is powerful in Shumaila, where basic services such as trash collection and electricity have been hard to come by in recent months.

Resident Aziza Nasr says a new president represents a hope that Yemen might get back to normal again.

Elsewhere in Sanaa, the people in Change Square have yet another perspective. The warren of tents, which looks like something between a shantytown and a state fair, has been the center of protest against Saleh for more than a year.

One huge poster tells those who hated Saleh what to do: Throw him out with your vote.

Some Boycott The Poll

Though several million of Yemen's 25 million people went out to vote, many people boycotted the election.

Part of the agreement for Saleh to step down and his vice president to take over was a promise of immunity for Saleh. Many protesters boycotted the election because, they say, that condition is unacceptable, given that Saleh's forces killed hundreds of protesters.

What's more, an insurgent group in the north and separatists in the south of Yemen say the transfer of power did little to address their demands. In both places, those boycotting the poll blocked people from voting — sometimes with violence.

All of this raises the question of whether a power-transfer deal that's ratified by the people is the right way forward. U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein, who played a major role in forging the deal, says it's only the beginning.

Now, says Feierstein, Yemen's new president will need to oversee a two-year transitional period where major changes will be made in the constitution and the military — not to mention keeping the peace while finding a way to bring the north and the south back into the fold.

"I hope that at the end of the two years that we have created a foundation to move the country forward," Feierstein says. "But realistically, we're talking about a generational challenge."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Millions of people in Yemen turned out to vote today in a strange kind of presidential election. There was only one way to vote, yes, because there was only one candidate. That man was the vice president under Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for more than three decades. He finally agreed to step down after nearly a year of mass protest against his rule. And NPR's Kelly McEvers reports on the process of replacing him.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: They call the next president of Yemen, Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, the consensus candidate. In many ways, he's got something for everyone. First, take the people in the outgoing president's dusty hometown, about an hour's drive outside Yemen's capital, Sanaa, inside a school that served as a polling station.

There are several pictures of President Saleh still here, sort of presiding over the proceedings as he has for 33 years in Yemen. What the people here are telling us is that they're voting for the new Yemen, for the new start. But the impression is that they're doing that because they think that's what Saleh wants them to do.

RAYSA AL-SAYANI: (Foreign language spoken).

MCEVERS: I cried today as I voted, says Raysa al-Sayani. We loved our president. But if he says his deputy is the best man for Yemen, then he is the best man for Yemen. If a man marries into your family, she says, you have to call him stepfather.

Then take the people in Shumaila, one of the Yemeni capital's poorest and most crowded neighborhoods. The stench of rot is powerful. Basic services like trash collection and electricity have been hard to come by in recent months. You could say the area is half and half: half with Saleh, half against.

AZIZA NASR: (Foreign language spoken).

MCEVERS: Aziza Nasr says a new president represents a hope that Yemen might just go back to normal again. And, finally, take the people in Change Square, a warren of tents in the capital that looks like something between a shanty town and a state fair. It's been the center of protest against Saleh for more than a year. One huge poster tells those who hated Saleh what to do: (Foreign language spoken) Throw him out with your vote.

So unlike in the president's neighborhood, where it was, like, support him with your vote, here it is throw him out with your vote. Aha. Still, despite the fact that several million of Yemen's 25 million people went out to vote today, many people boycotted the election altogether. Part of the agreement for Saleh to step down and his vice president to take over was a promise of immunity for Saleh. Many protesters boycotted the election today because they say that's unacceptable, given that hundreds of protesters were killed by Saleh's forces.

What's more, an insurgent group in the north and separatists in the south of Yemen say the transfer of power did little to address their demands. In both places, boycotters blocked people from voting today, sometimes with violence. The U.S. ambassador to Yemen, who played a major role in inking the deal, says it's only the beginning.

Now, says Ambassador Gerald Feierstein, Yemen's new president will need to oversee a two-year transitional period where major changes will be made in the constitution and the military - not to mention keep the peace while finding a way to bring the north and the south back into the fold.

AMBASSADOR GERALD FEIERSTEIN: I hope that at the end of the two years, we have created a foundation that will allow the country to move forward. But realistically, we're talking about a generational challenge.

MCEVERS: Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Sanaa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.