Saleh acknowledges election ‘mistakes’

SANAA (AP) — Yemen’s president on Sunday acknowledged “mistakes” in elections which gave him more than 77 per cent of the vote, but stood by his victory and thanked the opposition giving him his first real challenge in 28 years at power.

“We will rectify the mistakes of these elections in the next one,” Saleh told reporters at his presidential palace in SANAA.

“What distinguishes this election is the participation of the opposition, which gave the polls importance and presence in the international community,” he said.

A coalition of opposition parties, which fielded Saleh’s strongest challenger, former oil executive Faisal Ben Shamlan, rejected election commission results which gave Saleh 77.17 per cent of the vote and Ben Shamlan just 21.82 per cent. “It did not express the true choices of the voters in Yemen,” opposition parties said in a statement Sunday.

“It expressed results that were set in advance by certain factions in the leadership of the ruling party.” The European Union Election Observation Mission, in a preliminary report, called the elections “an open and genuine contest” but noted some problems, including underage voting, voter intimidation and illegal campaigning by the ruling General People’s Congress.

“We will take into consideration the remarks of the international observers,” Saleh said Sunday.

Ben Shamlan, the first serious candidate to run against Saleh since the president came to power in 1978, has not yet congratulated his opponent because there were still “unresolved irregularities” in the vote count, said Zaid Shami, Ben Shamlan’s campaign manager. The elections commission announced the final results of the presidential elections at a brief news conference Saturday. The commission did not take any questions and left many issues hanging, such as the fate of ballot boxes that were stolen or burned, polling stations where vote-counting was frozen due to disputes and instances where officials overseeing the vote did not stick to legal procedures.

While no one has challenged Saleh’s win, the real conflict since voting ended late Wednesday has been over the numbers. The opposition and some elections observers say Saleh wanted to win by a large margin to show he is strong and popular, and irregularities in the vote-counting were meant to give him that edge.

“It was a real election, with a real competition,” said Paul Salem, an observer who directs the Middle East Centre of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The monitoring by local and international observers was very rigorous and polling took place in most stations in a reasonably fair manner.” However, he said, there have been fairly widespread reports of abuse of influence and interference in a significant number of polling stations, particularly in the vote-counting stage.

“What is unfortunate is that a largely free and fair election could be clouded by doubts over percentage points or accusations of fraud, particularly at a time when virtually all parties agree that the basic outcome was that Saleh and the GPC did win,” Salem said.

Saleh told reporters that in this election, mistakes had been corrected since the last polls in 1999, in which he got 96.2 per cent of the vote. He faced only a former member of his ruling party running as an independent.

At a news conference Sunday, Saleh took one brief question and did not directly address opposition concerns. The opposition has threatened to encourage millions of supporters to take to the streets to show that its supporters number much more than partial election results indicated, and which gave Saleh 80 per cent of the vote.

Ibrahim Hayer, a member of the opposition, said no decision has been made yet about whether to go ahead with such a protest.

Saleh has ruled since 1978, first as president of North Yemen and then as head of the unified state after the May 1990 merger of North and South.

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