SANA'A, 8 February 2012 (IRIN) - After a year of mass demonstrations and street battles which brought the country to the brink of civil war, Yemen is preparing for presidential elections on 21 February; the sole candidate, Vice-President Abdu Rabo Mansour Hadi, kicked off his campaign yesterday.
While some observers argue that the election is a mere change of guard, others suggest it is the only way to save Yemen from collapse - ending President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule in accordance with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-brokered agreement signed in November 2011.
The GCC deal aimed to end a year of fighting that led to a deepening humanitarian crisis. But the election is being held under difficult circumstances.
Violence remains widespread across the country and the election is being opposed by Islamist militants, some elements within the Southern Movement, and the Houthis, who were left out of the November deal.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), data compiled by the government’s executive unit for internally displaced persons (IDPs) shows that 144,000 people have been displaced in southern and central Yemen since May 2011, and over 80,000 in Abyan Governorate alone.
In Kisher District in the northern governorate of Hajjah hundreds of people have been displaced by recent clashes between Houthis and Salafists. Hajjah is also where tens of thousands of IDPs have been displaced since 2004 by conflict between government and Houthi forces. Over 300,000 remain displaced in Sa’dah Governorate.
Saleh, now undergoing medical treatment in the USA, remains influential within the army, where his son commands an elite brigade; in the economy, where his relatives and cronies hold sway; and in politics where he remains head of the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC).
Hadi, who has been vice-president since 1994 and is GPC deputy chairman, is considered to be more open to dialogue with the opposition, including influential figures such as Gen Ali Mohsen (an erstwhile Saleh supporter) and Hamid al-Ahmar (a wealthy Sheikh from the opposition Islah Party). In view of the support he has among opposition groups he is viewed as the “consensus” candidate, who will guide the country through a two-year transitional period, in an attempt to resolve issues in the contested South and North, reunite the army and security forces, and prepare the country for competitive elections.
After approving Hadi’s nomination, parliament suspended its proceedings until after the election, essentially rejecting all other nominations, with the view that a competitive election at such a tense time could spark violence. The intention of the coming elections is to transfer power smoothly from Saleh, avoid violence and restore peace and services in Yemen. But many obstacles remain.
IRIN looks at some of the other key players and groups who could influence the polls.
Ahmad al-Musaibly, a TV announcer supported mainly by youthful protesters, had tried to contest the presidency, but parliament did not accept his credentials.
Al-Musaibly has no party affiliation, and says he is an “independent revolutionary”. He used to work for Yemen's main state-run TV, but resigned from his job in March to join the anti-Saleh protest movement.
“We need an independent president for the transitional period who believes in the legitimacy of the Youth Revolution against the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh,” the Organizing Committee of the Youth Revolution (OCYR), which supports his candidature, said in a statement on 15 January.
“There are millions of independent Yemeni citizens whom we expect will support this independent presidential candidate,” OCYR media coordinator Zaki Sallam told IRIN. “We expect the international community, which rejects the granting of immunity to killers, to support our candidate.”
His supporters, who had already started printing campaign materials, are likely to be frustrated by his inability to run and could cause trouble.
Despite some defections since political unrest began in February 2011, the GPC still has nearly 200 members in the 301-seat parliament, and holds half the posts in the 34-member interim cabinet.
In power for 10 years, and with a nationwide membership going back to when it was founded in the 1980s, party members head many institutions at governorate and district levels. The GPC will no doubt exploit the electoral advantages of incumbency.
Tensions within its leadership have, however, become evident lately. On 10 January, Hadi threatened not to run for president after GPC members accused him of defying Saleh’s authority, with some calling him a traitor.
The issue of immunity from prosecution for Saleh and his closest associates is likely to cause further problems for the GPC: Observers believe the GPC could have difficulty explaining the amnesty to a disgruntled electorate.
The cabinet recently approved a draft law granting amnesty to Saleh, but the decision has sparked widespread anger especially among young Yemenis, and criticism from human rights watchdogs. Yet party stalwarts seem determined: "No election may take place unless the capital Sana’a is cleared of gunmen and a draft law granting immunity to Saleh and his aides is approved," said Sultan al-Barakani, head of the party's parliamentary bloc.
Established in 2003, and active nationwide, Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) is a coalition of six major opposition parties: the Islamist Islah Party, the Yemeni Socialist Party, the Nasserite Unionist Popular Organization, the Arab Baath Party, the Union of Popular Forces, and the Haq Party.
It is chaired by Abdulwahab al-Anisi of the Islah Party. In December 2011, it took up half the seats in the interim cabinet under the GGC-brokered deal, including the position of prime minister. It has some 60 members in parliament.
JMP has been heavily involved in the nationwide protests against Saleh, and has been accused by GPC of involvement in staff protests at several state institutions - where JMP called for the ouster of institutional heads who are GPC members.
Najiba Mutahar, a political analyst at Taiz University, said attempts by some JMP parliamentarians to obstruct the amnesty law shows the JMP’s lack of support for it.
JMP, particularly Islah, has widespread support nationwide. It wants the current first-past-the-post system replaced by proportional representation, believing it to be more democratic.
The coalition is supported by “powerful and wealthy figures including Hamid al-Ahmar”, Ahmad al-Zawqari, a member of local NGO Yemen Election Monitoring Network (YEMN), told IRIN.
Despite the GCC deal, tens of thousands of young protesters calling themselves "revolutionaries" are still camping out in Sana'a and other main cities.
The “revolutionaries” who started the protest movement in February 2011, have long been wary of opposition compromises with the Saleh regime, a fact which may explain their reluctance to support the GCC-brokered deal.
They are opposed to immunity for Saleh and his aides, and are therefore unlikely to back any political group which supports the amnesty.
"Why give immunity to killers… who killed thousands of us… We will continue protesting until the killers are tried before our eyes," Tawakkul Karman, a young protest leader and Nobel Prize laureate, told IRIN.
Observers fear the young protesters could try and disrupt the elections. "Young protesters may escalate their protests, leading to violence and hindering the elections since they think parliament betrayed them by approving the immunity law on 21 January,” said Sheikh Nassr al-Shahiri, leader of the Supreme Council of Central Lands, a pro-JMP tribal coalition. They have already staged protests in Sana’a, Taiz and Aden.
The Southern Movement (SM)
SM comprises tens of thousands of people demanding the secession of the south.
Led by Hassan Baoum, the movement is active in the southern governorates of Dhalea, Lahj, Aden and Abyan; and the eastern governorates of Shabwa, Hadhramaut and Mahrah. It is opposed to the GCC-deal and the February elections.
In a rally in the southern port city of Aden in early January, hundreds of SM members burnt their voting IDs in front of cameras, indicating that they would boycott the elections.
"No polling station will be allowed to open in our territory… No citizen will be allowed to participate in the vote," Salah al-Shanfarah, an SM leader in Aden, told IRIN. "Any election will be illegitimate since our territory is being occupied by northerners."
Some SM members are armed. On 13 January clashes caused seven deaths and 26 injuries. “Their calls for boycotting the elections may find listening ears in the southern streets where people suffer poverty, poor basic services and feel they are excluded from real partnership in power and resources,” said YEMN’s al-Zawqari.
Ansar al-Sharia, an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is a loose affiliation of foreign Al-Qaeda fighters and local militants that has been increasingly confronting the Yemeni government in southern Yemen. Abyan Governorate is its main stronghold, but it is also active in the adjacent governorates of Shabwa, Beidha, Marib and al-Jawf.
Mostly from Yemen and Saudi Arabia, its militants have exploited the weak control of the central governorate over several parts of the country and gained more territory, recently expanding their operations to Radaa city in Beidha Governorate.
Sheikh Mohammed Bin Sabaa, from Abyan, told IRIN that Ansar al-Sharia are vowing not to allow the election management committees to enter the governorate. “They don’t recognize elections,” he said. “They see democracy as a Western concept introduced by the US.”
Ongoing military operations against the militants have made various areas of the south unsafe. The movement and expansion of Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups will negatively affect political progress and lead to security tensions, Ayesh Awas, a security researcher at the Saba Centre for Strategic Studies, told the Yemen Times. "It's not reasonable to hold elections in the areas of conflict," he said.
Led by Shia cleric Abdulmalik al-Houthi, this Shia rebel group is active in the northern governorates of Sa’dah, al-Jawf and Amran, as well as in some parts of Hajjah. It also has thousands of loyalists in Sana’a and other governorates.
They want more autonomy and ultimately the return of the pre-1962 Hashemite Imamate.
The Houthis are opposed to the GCC-brokered deal because of Saudi involvement: Saudi Arabia waged a war against them in 2009. They see democracy as a Western concept arbitrarily imposed on Yemen by the USA, but have supported anti-Saleh protests.
"In Islam, we have a caliphate, but not democracy which is an American concept," said Sameeh al-Rijami, a leader of the movement.
Observers say polling may not take place in Sa’dah and neighbouring areas due to insecurity. Currently, the Houthis are fighting Salafist Sunnis in some parts of Sa’dah, al-Jawf and Hajjah governorates.
Hashid Tribal Confederation
This Confederation of several tribes is loyal to powerful Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar, who has been involved in sporadic clashes with pro-government army units since May 2011.
The Confederation is believed to have tens of thousands of gunmen, mainly from Amran, Marib and Sana’a governorates. It has several hundred gunmen protecting al-Ahmar in the al-Hasaba area, north of Sana’a.
They have so far refused to leave Sana’a, as per the GPC-brokered deal, raising tension in the capital just weeks before the elections. “If Saleh wants immunity, he should leave Yemen," al-Ahmar told UN envoy to Yemen Jamal Bin Omar on 12 January.
Defected army units
Some 25-30,000 soldiers are believed to have defected, and represent a serious source of tension which could affect the elections, according to observers.
These include the First Armoured Division in the capital, and other divisions in the northwestern and eastern parts of the country which are loyal to Maj-Gen Ali Mohsen Saleh, commander of the Northwestern Military Zone, who says he is in favour of the elections.
The GCC deal requires all troops to be confined to barracks before the elections, but Ali Mohsen Saleh has not complied, fearing his troops could be vulnerable to attack by Republican Guards.
Republican Guard (RG)
Led by Brig Ahmad Ali Saleh, a son of President Saleh, the elite force of 23 divisions is based in Sana’a and other governorates including Dhamar, Ibb, Taiz, Beidha, Hudeidah and Hadhramaut.
RG is estimated to have some 40,000 soldiers controlling almost all strategic mountaintop positions overlooking Sana’a city.
Troops which have defected to Maj-Gen Ali Mohsen Saleh are demanding that RG abandon such positions before they withdraw from Sana’a, a demand which has been rejected by RG commanders.