SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh, hoping to defuse increasingly violent protests against his 32-year rule, said Thursday he would draw up a new constitution to create a parliamentary system of government.
An opposition spokesman swiftly rejected the proposal, and called for the continuation of anti-government rallies, which kicked off in January and have claimed almost 30 lives.
Impoverished Yemen, a neighbor of oil giant Saudi Arabia, is one of several Arab states that have seen mass protests this year, with Saleh looking increasingly weakened by the unrest.
Speaking to thousands of cheering supporters gathered in a soccer stadium, the autocratic Saleh said he wanted to form a unity government to help put in place a new political system.
“Firstly we will form a new constitution based on the separation of powers. A referendum on this new constitution will be held before the end of this year,” he said, speaking beneath a large portrait of himself.
“I‘m already sure that this initiative won’t be accepted by the opposition, but in order to do the right thing, I am offering this to the people and they will decide,” he added.
Yemen is a presidential republic, where the head of state wields significant powers. But as water and oil resources dry up, it has become increasingly difficult to fuel the patronage system that kept his tribal and political backers loyal.
The rotating president of Yemen’s umbrella opposition coalition, Yassin Noman, said his plan was too little, too late, and would not put an end to calls for Saleh’s resignation.
“These proposals have been overtaken by realities on the ground,” he said. “Had the ruling party offered this six months ago, it would have been different. It’s too late now.”
Saleh has already made several concessions to protesters, but has refused to bow to their central demand that he relinquish power immediately, saying he wanted to see out his term which expires in 2013.
“What president Saleh doesn’t realize is that in the past 32 years he’s really racked up a trust deficit and people just don’t believe him anymore,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar from Princeton University.
Tens of thousands of anti-Saleh protesters took to the streets of Sanaa, Taiz and Ibb as Saleh pitched his initiative to his own supporters. South of the capital in Dhamar, one of the 68-year old leader’s political strongholds, thousands rallied against the government Thursday.
“This initiative doesn’t satisfy our ambitions now. Our demand is clear, the regime must go,” said Bushra al-Maqtari, a youth activist in Taiz.
Saleh also offered to regroup Yemen’s 22 provinces into larger regional blocs. An official told Reuters this would allow wealthier provinces to support poorer ones, and said the plan would ensure there was an airport and a seaport in every region.
“Where exactly would Yemen be getting money to develop or build those? It seems like a speech that in many ways is divorced from the economic reality of the situation in Yemen,” said Princeton scholar Johnsen.
A string of allies have recently defected to the protesters, who are frustrated by rampant corruption and soaring unemployment in Yemen, where 40 percent of the population live on $2 a day or less and a third face chronic hunger.
“We want the regime to go, then we can solve our other problems,” said Samia al Aghbari, a leading Sanaa activist.
Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Dubai; Writing by Crispian Balmer and Erika Solomon; Editing by Sophie Hares