by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 16 July, 1999
THE NUMBER of would-be
contenders in Yemen's first direct presidential election rose to nine last week as the
country's fractious opposition parties failed to agree on a single candidate to challenge
President Ali Abdullah Salih. The likely effect of this will be to divide the opposition
vote among the Socialists, Nasserists and Ba'athists, giving Salih an even easier ride to
victory than he might have expected.
already been nominated twice - first by the main parliamentary opposition party, Islah,
and a few days later by his own party, the ruling General People's Congress. Together,
these two parties control 289 of the 301 seats in parliament and, under the electoral
rules, are the only parties capable of giving final approval to nominated candidates.
Meanwhile the Opposition Co-ordinating Council, which
represents the smaller parties and the Yemen Socialist Party (the former ruling party in
southern Yemen), met to consider fielding a single candidate. Disagreements ensued and the
Socialists broke ranks to nominate their secretary-general, Ali Salih 'Ubad Muqbil. Other
parties quickly followed with their own candidates.
None of these can actually enter the contest without the
approval of 31 members of parliament, which means that they will need support from
President Salih's GPC or the Islah party. Most are likely to get it, partly because the
GPC wants the contest to be perceived as free but also because, as far as Salih's
electoral chances are concerned, the more opposition candidates the better.
However, talks among potential candidates are continuing
and it is expected that some will withdraw before polling day.
Another opposition party, the League of the Sons of Yemen,
objects to various aspects of the electoral system and will not be putting forward a
candidate. It has advised its supporters to make their own decisions about what to do on
The question of whether or not to participate in the
election has been exercising opposition groups for months. Some argue that by standing
(and inevitably losing), they will simply allow the president to take the credit for
holding a free election. Others, while harbouring no illusions about the outcome, believe
that the election itself is a healthy development which will also provide a useful
opportunity to challenge the establishment.