by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 16 May
Yemen's second multi-party election has produced a knock-out
victory for President Ali Abdullah Salih's party, the General People's Congress. After the
crises and conflicts of recent years the result is ostensibly a vote for stability, though
it has also changed the political dynamics of the country - with uncertain effects.
It is the first time since north-south unification in
1990, and the accompanying democratisation, that a single party has held a clear mandate.
For the last seven years the GPC has held sway by dominating the middle ground in a
three-party system, alternately playing off the Yemen Socialist Party (which previously
ruled the south) and Islah (an alliance of tribal and Islamist elements) against each
That game is now over. The YSP is out of parliament,
having chosen - amid bitter internal recriminations - to boycott the election. For the
YSP, this looks like the end of a long, relentless, and perhaps inevitable decline which
was hastened by the secessionist war of 1994. It is difficult to see how the party can
ever recover unless President Salih finds a tactical need to revive it.
In the election on April 27, the sole beneficiary of the
YSP's suicidal tendencies was the GPC, which won 187 of the 301 seats (64 more than in
1993). Its only significant rival, Islah, won 53; five seats went to Nasserist and
Ba'athist parties, and 54 to candidates described as independent. Thirty-nine
"independents" have since declared their support for the GPC and six for Islah.
Two results are still undeclared.
In theory this overwhelming majority gives the GPC the
muscle to push through its plans, including some potentially unpopular economic measures.
But the fractious make-up of Yemen means that even now it cannot afford to be perceived as
domineering. For the sake of national unity the new government will include some non-GPC
ministers though - in President Salih's words - they will be participants, not partners.
This means that, unlike previous coalitions, the government's programme will be that of
the GPC, not a cobbled-together compromise.
Politically, the two most problematic areas for the GPC
lie in relations with Islah and with the south, the YSP's former stronghold. The fact that
Islah failed (just) to win the 60 seats regarded as its minimum target may fuel arguments
from its radical wing against continuing to participate in government or even in the
If possible, the GPC will force Islah into the government
in order to restrain it. The key to this is the Islamic Institutes - schools which Islah
uses for indoctrination and recruitment and on which it hopes to base its future political
strength. If Islah co-operates with the GPC it will be allowed to keep them; if not, they
will be brought under state control.
Three years after the war of secession, there is still
discontent in the south, partly kept at bay with heavy-handed security measures. Leaders
in Sana'a argue, with some justification, that the level of discontent and the violence of
its suppression was far greater under YSP rule before 1990. Their long-term strategy is
win acceptance by ensuring that southern interests are well represented in government and
by smothering discontent with investment. With Yemen's economy looking healthier than it
has for many years, there is a fair chance that the strategy will succeed. Currently, a
disproportionately high share of the national budget is spent in the south and there are
ambitious development plans.
Although aggrieved parties have denounced the elections as
fraudulent, reports by the international observers, while critical of some aspects, were
broadly favourable. The Joint International Observer Group in Yemen, representing 13
countries and the European Commission, found that on balance, considering all the
circumstances, the elections were "reasonably free and fair". The
Washington-based National Democratic Institute described them as "a positive step in
the democratic development of Yemen" but said the validity or otherwise of the
results was a matter for Yemenis themselves.
In the eyes of many Yemenis proper conduct of the
electoral process is more important than the outcome itself: the ability to do it by the
rule-book is a prerequisite for building a modern state. Following criticisms of the 1993
election, procedures this time were much improved, especially in the use of party symbols
to help illiterate voters. Most of the irregularities reported on election day were
relatively minor: more cock-up than conspiracy.
Because safeguards against fraud have made the voting
system slow, in some areas polling continued after nightfall, beyond the legal time limit
and without electric lighting. Counting was equally laborious, with each ballot paper held
aloft for scrutiny. This meant that many results were not announced within the statutory
72 hours - giving rise to wild rumours and speculation. However, with some important
exceptions, the broad picture was one of electoral officials working diligently in
More serious criticism centred on irregularities in the
registration of voters (MEI 548). There appears to have been abuse on all sides - the
victorious GPC itself lodged 50,000 objections - so the overall effect was possibly
neutral. There were repeated allegations of military voters registering in areas where the
government needed extra support but, despite appeals for information, the NDI observers
failed to find hard evidence.
In any case, a more effective way to manipulate the
outcome is through tactical candidacies. This is the system whereby parties consolidate
their votes by persuading other candidates to withdraw or fragment an opponent's vote by
encouraging additional candidates to stand. Although widely practised, it is entirely
legitimate except where bribery is involved.
Aside from these qualms, the logic of the situation and -
so far as anyone can judge - the climate of opinion pointed towards an overall majority
for the GPC. The huge margin of its victory is attributable, more than anything, to the
absence of the YSP.
In the long term, the lack of an effective and credible
opposition cannot be healthy: democracy is a game for more than one player. Paradoxically
this may help Yemeni democracy to strike deeper roots because, in the short term, it
presents no threat to the status quo. The country can safely move on to direct elections
for the presidency, regional governors and local authorities. Yemen is still an emerging
democracy, though it has emerged further than any of its neighbours. The real test of the
system's resilience will be the manner in which President Salih is eventually replaced.