SANAA, Yemen — When voting ends here Tuesday in early presidential elections, there's no doubt that something historic will have taken place: Ali Abdullah Saleh, who's ruled here for 33 years, no longer will be president, becoming the fourth veteran leader toppled over the course of the Arab Spring.
But even if most here agree that Yemen's first post-Saleh elections mark a historic occasion, Yemenis remain divided on the vote.
The politically independent youth activists who've spearheaded anti-government demonstrations in Sanaa since they began more than a year ago say they'll keep their protests going. They note that the selection of Saleh's longtime deputy, Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, as Saleh's replacement — Hadi is the only name on the ballot — hardly signals the change they've demanded.
Elsewhere in Yemen, significant blocs are expected to boycott the vote. Supporters of the Houthis — Zaydi Shiite Muslim rebels who control much of the nation's far north — and the Southern Movement, a loose group of secessionists who've called for a return to autonomy in the south, are expected not to cast ballots. Both groups say they were excluded from talks that led to Saleh's agreement to step down under an accord negotiated by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council.
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Still, many Yemenis hail the election as a means of sparing the country further violence, and both Saleh's General People's Congress party and the Joint Meeting Parties, a coalition of Yemen's establishment opposition parties, have backed the election enthusiastically.
Despite his long-standing ties to Saleh, opposition politicians have cast Hadi's election as the dawning of a new era, the beginning of a period of substantive changes in the structure of the government.
"The coming election will grant Hadi a mandate, giving him the responsibility and duty to move forward," said Mohamed Abu Luhom, a former ruling party member who founded the opposition Justice and Building Party after breaking with Saleh last March. "We're opening the door to the future, to a new chapter for Yemen."
Hadi ostensibly has held the reins of power since November, when Saleh finally agreed to relinquish them, signing a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council that granted him legal immunity in exchange for his exit.
The power transfer deal was supported by the United States, which saw it as a way to prevent Yemen from collapsing into chaos after months of uncertainty and factional fighting.
"I know you face challenges ahead, but I am optimistic that Yemen can emerge as a model for how peaceful transition in the Middle East can occur when people resist violence and unite under a common cause," President Barack Obama wrote Hadi in a letter that Obama's counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, delivered Monday. Brennan is in Yemen to demonstrate U.S. backing for the election.
Born in the southern province of Abyan, Hadi spent his early career rising through the ranks of the army of then-independent South Yemen. But in Yemen's north-south 1994 civil war, Hadi backed Saleh and sided with the forces of the north. Soon after the north's decisive victory, Saleh appointed Hadi vice president, a position he's held for nearly two decades.
That background is what makes the youth activists who've camped in downtown Sanaa for nearly a year skeptical that great change is in the offing. They say that their original demands — the reform of the constitution, the reorganization of the military and an end to corruption — remain unmet.
They also worry that the structure of Saleh's rule remains in place, an indication that he's far from toppled. They note that Saleh, who's in the United States for the treatment of wounds he suffered in a bombing last June, is expected to return to Yemen within days and that numerous Saleh relatives remain in control of much of the military.
Many are of two minds about the vote, even if it signals the formal end to Saleh's decades in power.
"The election is like a play. Really, it's all theater," said Hamza al Kamaly, a youth activist in Sanaa. "But while the election won't change much, it will mean one thing: Ali Saleh is finally gone."
(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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