SANAA: President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year-rule finally comes to an end this week when his deputy takes over in a referendum-like poll, marking Yemen as the first Arab country where an uprising led to a negotiated settlement.
Saleh's shadow however looms heavily over Tuesday's presidential vote as he maintains a strong hold over the country's most powerful security forces and has said he will return home ahead of the vote from the United States, where he is undergoing medical treatment.
Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi is the only name on the ballot, making the election merely a vote for the 66-year-old soldier from the south, considered by most as the consensus candidate.
Two major opposition groups, the separatist Southern Movement and the northern Zaidi rebels, are boycotting the polls.
The single-candidate election was a condition of a Gulf-brokered power-transition deal signed by Saleh in November after ten months of mass protests and mounting international pressure calling for his ouster.
The uprising's main proponents have asked Yemenis to throw their support behind Hadi and posters of the vice president have been plastered across buildings and throughout the streets of the capital Sanaa.
"Hadi has local, regional and international support and is a respected leader who has a vision for the future. We call on all Yemenis to participate in the election," General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, whose defection last March tipped the balance in favour of the protesters, told AFP.
Influential Nobel peace laureate Tawakkul Karman has also urged Yemenis to vote for the vice president, saying his election would mark "the fruit of the popular youth uprising."
Once Hadi takes office, he is expected to launch a national dialogue, the first step in the transitional period which will end in legislative and presidential elections within two years.
But many Yemenis have expressed concern over the role of the country's most powerful security forces, which remain under the control of Saleh's sons and nephews, and who were responsible for much of the bloodshed that occurred during the crackdown on protests.
They also fear Saleh's return to Yemen, which according to political sources in Sanaa, could be as early as Wednesday.
"I think the remnants of the old regime pose the greatest threat to the elections," said Mohammed Qahtan, a leader of the formal opposition Common Forum, whose representatives hold an equal share of posts in the 34-member unity government formed in December with Saleh loyalists.
"They are trying to encourage other parties, including the northern rebels, the southern separatists and Al-Qaeda, to disrupt the election to prove Saleh is the only man capable of controlling Yemen," he added.
Saleh's critics have repeatedly accused the veteran leader of intentionally allowing Al-Qaeda to expand its influence in the country's lawless south and east to demonstrate that only he can fight the spread of terror.
"President Saleh is the kind of person who never gives up completely. This casts doubt on his stated intentions to comply with the settlement plan," said one Western diplomat.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the diplomat said that those closest to Saleh, including his eldest son Ahmed, commander of the notorious Republican Guard troops, "still act independently and do not seem to be cooperating with the new authorities."
Electoral offices and polling stations have already come under repeated attacks in the past few days in Yemen's southern provinces, and a hardline faction of the separatist Southern Movement has called for marking Tuesday a day of "civil disobedience."
In the north, the Zaidi rebels, who have fought six wars with Saleh's regime since 2004, have also called on their followers to boycott the vote, after denouncing the transitional agreement for granting Saleh and his closest aides immunity from prosecution for crimes committed during the uprising.
European Union diplomats actively involved in implementing the Gulf plan, have recently travelled to Aden in the south, and Saada in the north, to convince both the separatists and rebels to abandon the boycott, but their efforts were unsuccessful, political sources have said.
Despite the challenges, broad international and regional support for the transition plan should be enough to allow the emergence of Yemen as the first Arab country to make an orderly transition from autocratic rule to democracy, the diplomats added.
Autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt were forced to resign last year, bowing down to mass uprisings in their countries.
In Libya, rebels backed by NATO forces captured and killed dictator Moammar Gadhafi in October.