SANAA (AFP) â€” Veteran Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh faces his first real electoral test in 28 years in power Wednesday when the Middle Eastâ€™s poorest country goes to the polls amid persistent Islamist and tribal unrest.
Saleh, who first took office as leader of the then North Yemen in 1978, has survived a 1994 civil war with the former communist south and Al Qaeda-inspired violence in Osama Ben Ladenâ€™s ancestral homeland, but now faces a challenger at the ballot box backed by both Islamists and former communists.
The 64-year-old father-of-seven, who has become a key partner in the US war on terror, is being taken on by former southern oil minister Faisal Ben Shamlan, 72, in a test of Washingtonâ€™s efforts to export democracy to the Middle East.
â€œThese elections are different â€” never before has the contest been so fierce,â€ said Sanaa University political analyst Mohammad Sabri.
â€œThe president seems in two minds â€” on the one hand he is proud of this democratic experiment, which he insists was his own idea, but at the same time he is worried about the challenge he is now facing.â€ Sabri said that at the very least the election should put paid to any ambition Saleh had to groom his son Ahmed to succeed him, as the late Syrian president Hafez Assad did his son Bashar.
Ben Shamlan, who is supported by both the Islamist Islah (Yemeni Reform Movement) and the southern-based ex-communist Yemen Socialist Party, has made the â€œinstallation of a parliamentary democracy that will allow a peaceful transition of powerâ€ the centrepiece of his political platform.
Saleh has hit back, dismissing Ben Shamlan as an â€œobscurantistâ€ in allusion to his Islamist support, despite the fact that Islah leader Sheikh Abdullah Ahmar is a key tribal ally and speaker of parliament with his ruling General Peopleâ€™s Congressâ€™s support.
Tribal loyalties retain enormous influence in Yemen â€” one of the worldâ€™s poorest countries despite its proximity to oil-rich Saudi Arabia â€” where the central governmentâ€™s writ barely runs to the countryside and the tribes regularly kidnap outsiders in a bid to leverage concessions.
In the latest incident, four French tourists remained in custody in southern Yemen in the run-up to polling day, seized to press demands unheeded after an earlier abduction of German holidaymakers.
The spokesman of the opposition umbrella group sponsoring Ben Shamlan warned the veteran president might yet be tempted to cheat if the voters turned against him.
â€œSaleh has been beaten at his own game,â€ said Common Forum Spokesman Ali Sarari.
â€œHe did not expect that the opposition would pose such a challenge or that there would be so many people looking for change.
He wonâ€™t tolerate an opposition victory … and may even try to falsify the results.â€ Sarari said the opposition planned to deploy some 11,000 observers at polling stations alongside more than 200 foreign monitors, more than half from the European Union.
In a country which has one of the worldâ€™s highest rates of private gun ownership â€” with an estimated 60 million weapons for a population of 20 million â€” armed clashes between rival supporters have marred the campaign.
Three people were killed and eight wounded in a shootout between supporters of the opposition and the presidentâ€™s party in the northern Jawf region last month.
In the run-up to polling day, the government also announced it had foiled an alleged terrorist plot against oil facilities in the eastern regions of Maarib and Hadramawt on Friday.
The following day the authorities said they had arrested four suspects linked to Al Qaeda whose sympathisers have been the target of US special operations in eastern Yemen since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
Washington, which has established a counter-terrorism base for the region across the Bab Mandab strait in Djibouti, said it was in favour of free and fair elections in Yemen but denied that it had foisted them on its war on terror ally.
â€œThese elections are of themselves a positive development â€” itâ€™s the first time thereâ€™s been a real contest,â€ US embassy number two Nabil Khoury told AFP.
â€œThe United States as a friendly country has been suggesting it, our advice has been directed at the need for a proper contest.â€ Khoury said. â€œBut itâ€™s something the Yemeni people have been calling for.â€ In the last presidential elections in 1999, Saleh faced a single challenger â€” Najib Qahtan Shaabi from his own ruling party â€” who took just 3.67 per cent of the vote against the presidentâ€™s 96.3 per cent.