SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen has begun a publicity campaign to get citizens to vote in the upcoming presidential election, officials said on Monday, part of a deal to ease President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office and pull the country back from the brink of civil war.
With Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi as the only candidate in the February 21 vote, there are fears of a low turnout that would dent the legitimacy of the man expected to lead Yemen during a two-year interim period when crucial decisions, dealing with restructuring the armed forms and introducing constitutional reforms, are expected to be taken.
"Your vote protects Yemen," read a giant poster hung in the capital Sanaa, depicting a smiling woman in a pink headscarf as she places her ballot into a voting box.
Abdul Wahhab al-Qudsi, head of the electoral commission's external relations, said preparations for the vote were in full swing. "(Our) main committee has gone to different provinces and the subcommittee will go off this weekend," he told Reuters.
It will be the first time in 33 years that a candidate other than Saleh -- now in the United States for treatment of injuries sustained in an assassination attempt last year -- will head the impoverished Arab state, located along key oil shipping routes.
Hadi has been endorsed as the candidate by all parties represented in parliament, under the transfer deal Yemen's wealthier Gulf neighbors struck to remove Saleh. It envisions a two-year transition phase leading to parliamentary elections.
Yemen is trying to recover from months of mass anti-Saleh protests and factional fighting that have allowed al Qaeda's regional wing to seize swathes of south Yemen and Shi'ite Muslim Houthi rebels to carve out their own domain in the north.
The United States and top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, fearing that instability will allow al Qaeda to expand its base of operations in Yemen, are counting on elections to bring security back to the country and avert the threat of outright civil war.
Many Yemenis feel the same way. "We will vote in order to avoid war," Abdullah Mutlah said as he sold his customers qat -- a mild narcotic plant used widely across Yemen.
Others said they felt cheated by the election, regarding it as a waste of time and money.
"Why are there elections if there is no competition?" shopkeeper Saddam Abdullah said. "Why are millions of riyals being spent on elections whose results are already known?"
Despite all the preparations and costs, some Yemenis worry that the elections may not spawn a peaceful transition.
Analysts said that some of the governments that backed the transition accord worry that a national unity government, comprised of Saleh's People's Congress Party and the opposition's Joint Meeting Parties, would like a low turnout.
"Some of the countries that promoted the initiative feel that both sides want a weak win for Hadi so that they can blackmail him," Yemeni political analyst Ali Hasan said.
Yemeni officials said Washington would not tolerate attempts to upset Hadi's ascension to the presidency.
"The American administration told representatives of (both sides within the unity government) that... the U.N. Security Council will strongly confront any attempts to keep Hadi from being elected as the country's president," a Yemeni minister who attended a meeting with U.S. officials last week told Reuters.
Underscoring the disorder in Yemen, unknown gunmen fired on a car transporting 34 million Yemeni riyals ($200,000) worth of salaries in the southern city of Aden on Monday, injuring one of the drivers, a local security source told Reuters.
The wages were being taken to workers who built desks and other furniture for local schools. Such money is essential in Yemen, where 42 percent of the population of 24 million lives on less than $2 a day, according to World Bank data.
(Writing by Nour Merza; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Mark Heinrich)