Yemeni voters were expected to grant President Ali Abdallah Salih a new five-year term today in a rarity for the Middle East: a contested election for the country's top leadership position.
Results will be announced this weekend, but even Salih's challenger, Najeeb Qahtan Shaabi, acknowledged his opposition to the long-serving ruler was token. Shaabi, in fact, was recruited from Salih's own party to ensure Yemen's first presidential election would not be uncontested.
Salih nevertheless praised the day's vote as a rare exercise in a region dominated by monarchies and governments that originate in the military, and in a country known more for its tribal battles, kidnappings and seemingly universal gun ownership.
"This is a good beginning for the establishment of democratic traditions," Salih said after casting his vote in downtown Sanaa, the nation's capital.
Backed by the military and the country's influential tribal leaders, Salih took control of what was then North Yemen after the assassination of his predecessor in 1978. He retained the post after unification with the formerly independent and communist south. Yet the country's new constitution, written under his supervision after a 1994 civil war, mandated popular election of the president as well as a multiparty system and a two-term limit on the presidency that is the only one of its kind in the Arab world.
While the outcome of today's vote was never in doubt--a fact that drew calls for a boycott from an opposition bloc whose candidate was not allowed to run--the campaign was a relatively vibrant affair compared with the systems in most Arab countries. The monarchies in Jordan, Bahrain and Morocco all changed hands this year with no popular counsel, while the president of Syria was given a new term with nearly 100 percent of the vote in an unchallenged referendum. A similar, uncontested referendum will be held in Egypt on Sunday.
In contrast, Shaabi was given about a half-million dollars in public funds to underwrite his campaign, and his picture and platform were featured even in the government controlled press. His posters extolling women's rights and better education competed for space alongside Salih's, and his criticisms of the government, according to analysts here, forced the president to change his rhetoric and respond.
Voters seemed to catch the mood. Trucks rode honking through the streets on the way to the polls, while men waved their ceremonial knives in the air and munched casually on qat, a widely used mild narcotic, as they waited in line to vote. Unlike other states in the conservative Persian Gulf, universal suffrage is a well-established fact here and women wearing heavy black cloaks eagerly waved their stained blue thumbs to show they had been duly fingerprinted while performing their civic duty.
There was controversy leading to today's election, however, and some disappointment over the final choice given to Yemen's 5.5 million registered voters. One potential candidate, backed by a coalition of socialist and pan-Arab parties, was excluded from the race after he earned the endorsement of only seven members of Yemen's 301-seat parliament, far short of the 30 needed to qualify.