Yemen presidential polls break succession taboo

SANAA — Unprecedented political debate during recent Yemeni polls also broke taboos over the issue of succession, putting reelected President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s plans for his son to take over on hold, analysts say.

Freer criticism of the regime combined with the presence of foreign media during last week’s presidential polls, in which Saleh faced his first real electoral challenge in 28 years, opened a debate about the accession of Saleh’s son Ahmed, 35, who currently heads the country’s Republican Guards.

Former oil minister, Faisal Ben Shamlan, who garnered over 21 per cent of the votes, also emerged from the ballot as a serious contender from outside Saleh’s circle of power, backed by the Common Forum of five opposition parties. “These elections made it less likely that he [Saleh] gives power to his son or chooses his own successor like [late Syrian president Hafez] Assad did, or [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak and [Libyan leader Colonel Muammar] Qadhafi are, according to all signs, going to do,” said US analyst Robert Burrowes.

“If the opposition is able to be effective between now and parliamentary elections in 2009, that will even make it impossible for Saleh to name a successor,” Burrowes said. He said the opposition’s credibility as an alternative to Saleh, 64, and his son, will depend on its “ability to stay together and resist the regime’s attempts to divide it by offering them alliances with the government”. “Nobody was there to oppose the corruption until now, or to be seen as a real alternative able to lead a peaceful power change without falling into chaos,” said Burrowes, author of several books on Yemen. The opposition has proven to be “coherent and very pragmatic”, capable of taking on the presidential challenge, he added.

But for the opposition forum’s spokesman, the succession by Saleh’s son to power is almost inevitable.

“The inheriting of power is blatantly there in Yemen, like in any other Arab country,” Mohammad Qahtan told AFP, claiming that “news about the son precedes that of the head of the state in the news bulletins of state media.” “Saleh insists, using a logic that I  cannot comprehend, that [US President] George W. Bush has inherited power from his father,” president George Bush, who lost his bid for a second term in 1992 to Democrat Bill Clinton, Qahtan said. “The regime in Yemen is on its way to become another ‘royal presidency’ like in other Arab countries,” he added. Yemeni political analyst Mohammad Sabri said that the polls had “deflated the plans for Saleh’s succession.” “I believe that the opposition has dealt a deadly blow to the idea of inheriting power, and presented itself as a strong and uncorrupted alternative to a family which has monopolised power for 28 years without being able to develop the country,” he said.

He charged that the country under Saleh has “regressed economically, politically and socially.” One of Saleh’s half-brothers is the military chief in the northern and western regions of Yemen, his other half-brother is commander of air forces, while his nephew is the head of security forces.

When asked by an Arab satellite channel during his electoral campaign if he was preparing his son to succeed him in power, Saleh responded: “He’s ready.” “It is his right as a citizen, but I don’t give him advice because I am tired of power. But I am forced [by the people] to stay,” said Saleh, whose posters during the campaign carried the name “Abu [father of] Ahmed”.

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