Yemen’s Next President Must Reconcile North, South

Yemen’s incoming president is first southerner in the post. He must initiate a process of reconciliation.

View of Sana'a, Yemen's capital, August 28, 2009
View of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, August 28, 2009 (Kate Dixon)

With former president Ali Abdullah Saleh tucked away in a New York City hotel, 7,000 miles away from his longtime home, millions of Yemenis voted for a new leader on Tuesday. The presidential election will not be much of a contest one — Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi will be the only candidate on the ballot — but it will nonetheless provide the country with an opportunity to ditch the past year of bloodshed and usher in a new era in Yemeni history.

Yemen is clearly a country that is still fractured along a number of lines. When asked whether the upcoming presidential election will bring stability to their lives, some Yemenis are apprehensive, if not downright dismissive, that the vote will make any difference. Many of Yemen’s street demonstrators, who have done most of the protesting and dying over the last year, are insulted that the February 21 vote can be called an election at all. As one Yemeni interviewed by The Washington Post laid out with agitation, “How can they support such a thing? How can they call it an election?”

This sentiment is particularly widespread in Yemen’s southern highlands, which has perhaps been one of the most disenfranchised and abandoned regions of the country since the north and south merged in 1990.

Residents in the coastal city of Aden, the one time capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen, are skeptical that a new government in Sana’a will do anything to give them their fair share of representation in the political process. Yemen may technically be a single entity, but a large portion of the population in the south still look back to the days of southern independence with “nostalgia,” when they controlled their own resources and were free to make policy based on their own needs. That short history came to an end when the Soviet Union scaled back its support to South Yemen (which was then the Arab world’s only Marxist state), which weakened it to the point of allowing Ali Abdullah Saleh to gobble up the region on his own terms.

Calls by southern leaders for some sort of separation from the north have grown significantly over the past year, where the power of the central government has been eroded. The Southern Movement is the loudest voice for those calls although the movement itself is divided, with some simply wanting more autonomy, while others are pushing for full independence.

Vice President Hadi is a southerner himself, albeit one that has ingratiated himself more with Saleh’s northern brethren than his people along the coast. The simple fact that a southerner will now hold the top spot in the government for the first time since unification could have enormous dividends for the people of the southern provinces.

Whatever the case, Hadi will have his work cut out for him as he enters office officially after the presidential vote. The United States has given the longtime vice president their full support, with some juicy economic incentives coming his way if he pushes for democratic reforms and cooperates fully on terrorism issues. But ultimately, Hadi can only survive with the support of his own countryman. In order to attract that support, he must demonstrate good will and show the courage required to tackle the tough issues. Introducing more equilibrium into the north-south relationship will be one of those major issues.