By Tom Finn
SANAA, Feb 19 (Reuters) - After a year of protests, diplomatic wrangling and an assassination attempt, Yemenis will draw a line under Ali Abdullah Saleh's three-decade rule on Tuesday by voting in an uncontested election to install his deputy as president.
In the capital Sanaa, new posters of the sole candidate, Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, have been plastered over the peeling scraps of Saleh's moustachioed image -- a visible sign of a fourth Arab autocrat's demise in the wake of revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Hadi, 66, became acting president when Saleh stepped aside in November under a deal hammered out by Yemen's Gulf neighbours, fearful of a slide into lawlessness on their doorstep, and backed by the United States.
But civil war remains a very real risk in a country facing rebellion in the north, a southern secessionist movement, an emboldened offshoot of al Qaeda and an economic crisis that has brought it to the brink of famine.
"If the new government fails to fulfil its obligations to reach out and re-integrate the southerners, the Houthis (northerners) and the youth ... then conflict will be inevitable," said political analyst Abdulghani al-Iryani.
The power transfer, brokered by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has been touted by regional and Western powers as a triumph of diplomacy.
Visiting Yemen, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan praised Hadi's efforts against al Qaeda and said on Sunday that Washington hoped the country would be a model of peaceful political transition in the Middle East.
Yet most Yemenis see Hadi as a caretaker rather than a seasoned leader. If he is unable to keep warring interests within the military from getting out of hand, many fear Yemen will be torn apart by those hoping to exploit a power vacuum.
"The GCC deal does nothing more than maintain the status quo," said Karim Rafari, a prominent political activist. "It (the election) is just a political manoeuvre that ensures that the needs of those at the top are seen to."
Apart from al Qaeda's interest in using Yemen as a staging ground for attacks, Saudi Arabia suspects Shi'ite power Iran of supporting Houthi rebels in the north. The Shi'ite group has regained some of the momentum it lost when Saudi Arabia sent troops to the porous 1,460 km (910 mile) border in 2009 to suppress the rebellion.
Holding the country together will be a feat, let alone drafting a constitution and holding a referendum to pave the way for a multi-party election in two years' time, as laid out in the Gulf initiative.
CAN HADI RULE?
Saleh, who is in New York undergoing medical treatment for injuries suffered in a bomb attack against him in June, has vowed to return and lead his General People's Congress (GPC) party, casting doubt on his commitment to give up power for real.
Even if he lets go after ruling since 1978, members of his inner circle retain key positions of influence, not least his son Ahmed Ali, who commands the Republican Guards, and Yehia, his nephew, who leads the Central Security Forces. They are locked in a standoff with tribal leader Sadeq al-Ahmar and dissident General Ali Mohsen.
Although Saleh was deeply unpopular, as evidenced by the entrenched street protests against him, there is little doubt it was his iron fist that held Yemen together, a task he once likened to "dancing on the heads of snakes".
"Ali Abdullah Saleh unified our country, something that no Yemeni leader has ever done before," said 38-year-old mechanic Abdulkarim Al-Mugni. "Even if he leaves, I am sure his influence will pervade Yemen for years to come."
A southerner from Abyan province, Hadi supported Saleh during Yemen's north-south civil war in 1994. Like many in the senior ranks of the ruling party, Hadi rose to prominence through the military: he was sent to Britain in 1966 to study military tactics when Aden was still a crown colony, and was later appointed minister of defense.
An official from the opposition Islamist Islah party described him as "smart and well-connected but politically weak."
"Unless these elections lead to change and reform they will be meaningless," said one Arab diplomat. "We are confident that Yemen will enter a new phase but it faces big challenges."
Low voter turnout also risks denting the poll's legitimacy.
Southern separatists who want to revive a socialist state which Saleh united with the north in 1990 have said they will not take part in the vote.
"It's true we reject these elections because they give legitimacy to the current regime ... We do not care for these elections because they are a product of the Gulf initiative to which we were not party," said Abdo al-Maatari, a spokesman for the Southern Movement.
In the north, the Houthis have effectively carved out their own state-within-a state thanks to a weakened central government, and have vowed to keep pursuing their own interests.
"We are boycotting the elections because they are superficial elections in which there is one candidate and they are a Saudi-American ploy to keep their allies in power," said Dayfallah al-Shami, a member of the Houthi leadership council.
Riyadh and Washington, both targets of al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, long backed Saleh, politically and financially, as a cornerstone of their counterterrorism strategy. Saleh's opponents accuse him of manipulating the threat of militancy - even encouraging it - to scare them into supporting him.
Since anti-Saleh protests took hold early last year, Islamist militants have snatched several towns in the south. Many say that has made the United States and Saudi Arabia reluctant to see him go.
"It was clear from last year that Washington and Riyadh had come up with a formula that Saleh leave and his regime stay," said Yemeni analyst Sami Ghalib.
One emerging hope is that the deal to remove Saleh from power could pave the way for much-needed foreign aid and investment into the country of 24 million, where 42 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day.
Shortages of electricity, water and fuel have sent prices skywards, with inflation running as high as 50 to 60 percent, levels unseen since 1995.
The International Monetary Fund has said it is ready to discuss fresh aid when the situation in Yemen is calmer, but it may not be willing until there is a government in place that can adopt and implement economic reforms.
"Whatever," said Ahmed al-Haifi, the owner of a battered motorbike taxi. "These are communist-style elections. What an embarrassment for Yemen and its people ... I have no hope that the elections will change anything for anyone. What do elections mean to me when I can barely afford to buy petrol?" (Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa and Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden; writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Reed Stevenson and Mark Trevelyan)