Yemen's first post-Saleh vote won't be much of a contest


McClatchy Newspapers

SANAA, Yemen — Yemen's new prime minister said Sunday that both the ruling party and the country's largest opposition coalition would nominate the country's current vice president to be their candidate in the upcoming election to pick a successor to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who agreed last week to step down after 33 years in power.

Mohamed Basindowa, a 77-year-old veteran of South Yemen's struggle for independence from Great Britain, said that he understood that the decision to hold what essentially will be an uncontested election to replace Saleh would not be considered ideal by those who are hoping to instill democracy here after three decades of authoritarian rule.

But he said the solution was the "only way" to move past the country's current political impasse if Yemen is to hope to engage in a substantive national dialogue and cope with the nation's economic crisis.

"There will be a consensus candidate, the vice president," Basindowa said. "We have to accept this to move past this stage. This is the only way to make a breakthrough, to overcome the impasse."

Still, he said he remains optimistic that the country can recover after 10 months of protests and internecine warfare that have left much of the country outside the authority of the central government.

"This is critical stage in the history of Yemen and the government will face many obstacles," he said." But I believe we have the will to overcome these things."

The decision by the ruling General People's Congress Party and the opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parites or JMP, to name the current vice-president, Abed Rabbo Masour Hadi, as their consensus candidate will cement Hadi's hold on power. Hadi assumed Saleh's authority last week under the deal that called for the formation of a new national unity government until presidential elections could be held.

Hadi on Sunday named Basindowa prime minister of that new national unity government. On Saturday, Hadi set Feb. 21 for the elections.

In an exclusive interview with McClatchy, Basindowa sat down in his home in Sanaa with a reporter just two hours before his appointment was official and offered his first public thoughts on what is likely to happen in Yemen.

He expressed confidence that the country would recover from the turmoil that has convulsed it since opposition demonstrators first took to the streets to demand Saleh's resignation, protests that were met with brutal repression that resulted in hundreds of deaths.

He urged the international community to remain in engaged in Yemen's affairs, saying Yemen will need both economic assistance and political support to bring about the kind of change needed to heal its fractures.

He also said he understood why members of the youth movement that first agitated for Saleh's resignation have expressed dissatisfaction with the deal that led to his ceding power last week. Under the deal, Saleh is to be granted amnesty for any crimes he may have committed as president, including involvement in the deaths of demonstrators earlier this year.

Many youth demonstrators have loudly condemned the agreement, brokered by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, arguing that it fails to achieve their goals of substantial political reform. Basindowa expressed sympathy and said he would not try to prevent the continuation of peaceful demonstrations.

"We have to respect the right of the youth to protest peacefully, we have to listen to them closely, and we appreciate their disagreement with us," he said. "What is happening now is a partial change, but we hope that it will lead to a total change, God willing."

Basindowa said he hoped that Saleh and his family would honor the deal. Saleh returned to Yemen on Saturday, and his relatives hold key positions in the country's army and military intelligence organization.

"I hope they will abide by the GCC initiative," he said. "This is what I hope. But this is up to them. You know the international community, not only the Gulf States, is following up and they will not let Yemen go into civil war."

As prime minister, Basindowa will represent the opposition in the post-Saleh unity government.

Born in 1935 in the southern city of Aden, Basindowa played a key role in south Yemen's struggle against British occupation. Forced to remain in North Yemen after his faction, the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY), was defeated by the Marxist National Liberation Front (NLF), he has held numerous portfolios both before and after the country's 1990 unification.

Despite holding ministerial positions under Saleh, he remained a political independent and has never been a member of the ruling General People's Congress Party.

Given his age, Basindowa acknowledged that accepting the prime minister's post has effectively voided any chance of a peaceful retirement. Gesturing at photos of him with numerous long-departed leaders, he emphasized that it was only a sense of national duty that motivated him to accept the position.

"As far as I am concerned, I'm not happy with being prime minister at this stage," he said. "But I have no choice to but to accept. I must serve Yemen; I can only hope to [end] my life by doing something good for my country."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


Yemen presidential vote set for Feb. 21; Saleh returns home

A defiant Saleh agrees to step down as Yemen's president

Healthier-looking Saleh tells Yemen he'll be back soon

Already poor, Yemen taking an economic beating from unrest

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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