choice of democracy
Originally published in The Guardian, 26 April
Yemen goes to the polls
tomorrow. Brian Whitaker drops in on the worryingly familiar campaign trail
PICTURE the scene. Amid disquiet about the
state of British democracy, international observers fly in to monitor the election. The
teams from Japan, Russia and Denmark have heard rumours about less than legitimate party
funding, fiddles with candidates' expenses and abuse of proxy votes, among other things.
John Major and Tony Blair both take time off from campaigning to insist our elections are
free and fair, while Paddy Ashdown takes the opposite tack and lectures the observers on
The Japanese team,
armed with laptops and spreadsheets, move on to Conservative Central Office where they ask
to inspect the accounts. After a lively exchange of views with Brian Mawhinney, they leave
empty-handed. The Russians are astonished by the lack of identity checks at polling
Now shift the scene a few thousand miles to the southern
tip of the Arabian peninsula, where Yemen goes to the polls tomorrow, four days before we
do. The observers here - Americans, Europeans and Arabs - have been arriving for days.
Yemen welcomes them as if its very future depends on them,
which, in a sense, it does. Once upon a time General Pica of San Seriffe could get himself
re-elected with a 99 per cent majority and cheerfully wave two fingers at international
opinion. But today, countries which hope to attract aid and foreign investment are
expected not only to democratise but to prove that it's genuine.
Regardless of who wins the contest tomorrow, probably
hundreds of millions of dollars hang on the verdict of the international observers.
The result is that political leaders in emerging
democracies face two conflicting pressures at election time. For economic reasons, if
nothing else, they want the process to be perceived as democratic; at the same time they
want to be sure of staying in power.
A few leaders in the past, noting the observers'
difficulty in coping with an unfamiliar language and country, have decided to take a
chance and paid the price. Observers are not easily fooled.
There is also the question of what standards to apply when
judging an election. 'You have to ask: what is perfection, what is realistic, one
experienced observer said. No election is perfect.' In Yemen, with high illiteracy rates
(84 per cent among rural Yemeni women) and countless remote mountain villages, holding an
election places a huge burden on a civil service which functions only creakily. Faced with
irregularities in a polling station for the first time, election officials may have no
idea how to respond.
The most obvious areas for cheating are in the
registration of voters and polling itself. One monitoring organisation in Yemen claims to
have found 176,000 irregularities in the registers. If some of the people listed succeed
in voting on Sunday, it will be conclusive proof of life after death.
There are also reports, denied by the government, of
military voters registering in constituencies where the government needs extra support.
This is a Yemeni adaptation of the celebrated Westminster gambit, where the Tory council
re-housed homeless families in Labour wards.
However, the number of irregularities in Yemen is a tiny
fraction of the total 4.6 million electorate; the fraudulent votes would have to be very
precisely targeted to make much difference. In Yemen, on paper, it would also be difficult
to apply the old injunction: vote early, vote often. All electors have a registration card
with their photograph. There are separate polling stations for women where veils can be
lifted to check their identity. After voting, thumbs are dipped in ink to prevent a return
visit, though last time some ink found its way on to door handles and other objects that
voters might touch on their way to the polls.
The line between smart electoral tactics and unfair
practice is a fine one.
Why risk being caught cheating when there are more
effective, legitimate, ways to manipulate the outcome? The most striking feature of Yemeni
elections is the enormous number of candidates who are nominated - 3,851 this time for
just 301 seats, and the number who subsequently withdraw - more than 1,500 so far. The
negotiations which bring this about are intense and deeply mysterious.
In the space of just two elections, tactical withdrawal
has developed into an art form by trading seats between parties. Party A agrees to give
party B a relatively free run in one constituency where, if both stood, the party C might
sneak in; party B returns the favour elsewhere. The two parties in the coalition
government are, as they put it, 'co-ordinating' their efforts wherever possible.
The effect is to squeeze out smaller parties and restrict
voters' choice, to loud tut-tutting from foreign observers. A disgraceful sharp practice,
perhaps, but it's exactly what Labour and the Liberal Democrats did for Martin Bell in
Numerous individuals have been quick to exploit the
possibilities of the withdrawal system: they put themselves forward as independents in the
hope that one of the wealthier parties will 'persuade' them to stand down. The going rate
is 250,000 Yemeni Riyals (less than the price of one parliamentary question in Britain).
This time, however, another type of independent candidate
has emerged, with entirely honourable motives. They don't even want to become members of
parliament and will be perfectly happy if nobody votes for them. They are unofficial
Yemeni election observers disguised as candidates and are using this tactic because the
law entitles candidates to special privileges.
They are guaranteed free access to polling stations, they
can accompany ballot boxes en route to the count, and they can scrutinise ballot papers.
So if there's foul play, they should be the first to spot it.
Back in Britain, come May 2, the Japanese, Russian and
Danish observers report that they have found 'certain irregularities', though on balance
these are not sufficient to invalidate the election. They issue a list of recommendations
for improving electoral procedures. Subject to corrective legislation, our supplies of CD
players, vodka and bacon are secure for another five years. As for Yemen, we'll have to
wait and see.