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Southern Yemen's election boycott hints at trouble ahead

ADEN, Yemen — Yemenis will head to the polls Tuesday in a one-candidate election that's expected to make Vice President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi the first president from southern Yemen since the country's two halves were unified in 1990.

Despite this seeming milestone, however, few in Aden, the south's former capital, are lining up to endorse the future president. Hadi earned the ire of many southerners by siding with northern forces and President Ali Abdullah Saleh during the 1994 civil war.

Now, with Saleh forced from power after months of popular demonstrations, many in Aden are boycotting the elections. They're honoring calls by the Southern Movement, a loose grouping of activists and demonstrators who are agitating for an end to Yemeni unity and the restoration of an autonomous southern state.

Two decades after unification — which was quickly followed by the south's defeat in the civil war — many southerners say it has been a failure. They say that the culture of the comparatively liberal, formerly socialist south are incompatible with that of the north, and they complain that the influence of tribal leaders and radical clerics originally from the north has contributed to an erosion of women's rights, a spike in illiteracy rates and growing instability.

Even worse, they say, is the political and economic toll of having been absorbed into the more populous north — home to nearly 80 percent of this impoverished Arab nation's estimated 24 million people. Many southerners say that the central government in Sanaa has opened the door for powerful northerners to loot their land, leaving the spoils of the region's oil and natural gas reserves in the hands of outsiders.

The Southern Movement was founded in 2007 but pressure and harassment from the central government long kept it underground. As Sanaa's grasp on much of Yemen has dissipated over the past year during the Arab Spring-inspired protests, the loosely organized movement has defiantly emerged from the darkness with a hardened commitment to achieving greater autonomy.

Secessionist graffiti marks much of Aden. The once-taboo flag of the independent south flies throughout the city. Movement activists freely rally openly, calling for separation and an end to "occupation."

In the run-up to elections, the Southern Movement's supporters have burned voter registration cards in symbolic rejection of the election, which they characterize as a sham that will only bolster the Sanaa government.

"We are not simply boycotting the elections — we are refusing them," said Ali Abdulmajid al Jawhery, spokesman for the Aden Free National Assembly, a political party under the umbrella of the Southern Movement.

"We refuse to take part in elections that are being held while we are still under a state of occupation."

Despite months of anti-government protests in Sanaa and the formation of a transitional government, southern activists say they remain deeply pessimistic about the political situation. Almost all the movement's various factions have rejected a Gulf Cooperation Council initiative — backed by the United States and signed by the ruling party and key opposition groups — that provided the basis for Saleh to hand over power, dismissing it as an agreement between northern politicians.

"The southern people have no choice but to boycott the elections," said Omar Jobran, the head of the southern movement's council in Aden, who added that the Gulf initiative "failed to meet our needs."

"What's outlined in the deal gives an unrealistic — and unacceptable — solution to the southern struggle."

In the run-up to elections, polling places across the south have been attacked and clashes have erupted between those who support the vote and those who oppose it. Southern Movement leaders deny allegations that they're behind the violence, blaming saboteurs linked to Saleh and his allies in the central government.

Still, some activists say the conflict could escalate.

"We increasingly feel that it is the whole of the international community — not just the northern government — that is ignoring us," said Khaled Bamadhaf, a pro-secession activist and former officer in the southern army. "Preventing us from deciding our own fate is putting us in a difficult situation. It is only working to empower extremists."

Politicians in Sanaa and many international observers have hailed the election as a crucial step in reforming the Yemeni state. But southerners say that in the absence of concrete steps, they'll continue to agitate for autonomy, which hints at a turbulent post-election period.

"From 1994 until now, we have been occupied by tribal militants and extremists and we're supposed to believe there is hope?" said Hoda al Attas, a writer and women's rights activist. "Regardless of this theater of elections, we will continue our struggle for freedom and self-determination."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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