by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 2 May 1997
At least 11 people were killed in Yemen's election day violence on
May 27. There was no systematic pattern to the trouble nor - in some cases - an obvious
political motive. In part it was just an everyday tale life and death in a country where
In Abyan province a soldier shot dead eight people: two
members of his family, three other soldiers, one policeman, one security man and one
candidate's representative. It happened at 3.30 in the morning, for reasons which are
still not clear.
In the southern Yafa'i territory, one person was injured
in clashes apparently targetted at a polling station. In the north, two separate tribal
clashes left two dead and elsewhere a man killed a member of his family. One person was
injured by a grenade near a polling station in Ibb province.
In Dhamar province, voting was suspended for a time after
an independent candidate opened fire, complaining that the campaign symbol used against
his name on the ballot paper was wrong (he had changed it at the last minute). In the same
province, two people were injured when a man tried to force his way into a polling
station. Later, an electoral committee was held hostage and a road blocked to prevent
ballot boxes being transported to the count.
All this distracted attention from a voting system which
was far better prepared and organised than for Yemen's first multi-party elections in
1993. The process was closely watched by international monitors, candidates'
representatives and - for the first time - thousands of trained Yemeni observers.
The irregularities reported were relatively minor,
considering the formidable practical difficulties of holding elections in Yemen. There
were many arguments over names on voters' registration cards which were not quite the same
as those on the electoral registers. By nightfall, to placate the crowds still queueing,
voting continued beyond the legal closing time in some areas without electric lighting.
Occasionally the mutual suspicion between candidates led
to extravagant rumours. When one party handed out free pens to voters, stories spread that
they were filled with "magic ink" which would disappear from the ballot papers
after a few minutes.
Later, at least in the capital, Sana'a, counting appeared
meticulous, with officials citing the law when problems arose. Counting was continuing as
Middle East International went to press, but the two government parties, President Salih's
General People's Congress (GPC) and Islah, both looked set to increase their parliamentary
strength following a decision by the Yemen Socialist Party to boycott the election. Many
observers predicted that the GPC would win more than half the 301 seats.
Moves by the coalition partners to squeeze out minor
parties by co-ordinating their efforts were frustrated shortly before polling day when a
number of candidates refused to stand down as instructed. This turned the final stages of
the campaign into an unexpectedly vigorous contest.