by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 1 September, 2000
YEMEN’S parliamentary elections, due
next April, will be postponed for up to two years under a series
of constitutional changes proposed by President Ali Abdullah
While extending the term of the House of Representatives from
four years to six, the changes would also make it easier for the
president to dissolve parliament early, on grounds of
In a letter to parliament, President Salih suggested that four
years was too short a period and pointed to the high cost of
Other proposals envisage a greater role for the
presidentially-appointed upper house, the Shura Council, which
will be expanded from 59 members to 111.
The move to prolong the life of parliament - in which President
Salih’s party has a massive majority - came a few days after the
Washington-based National Democratic Institute issued a critical
report on preparations for next year’s elections.
The NDI, which has experience of electoral processes in many
emerging democracies, took a generally favourable view of Yemen’s
1993 and 1997 elections, though it refused to monitor last year’s
presidential election in which Salih resoundingly defeated a
little-known opponent from his own party.
In its latest report, the NDI says: "It appears to us that
Yemen's democratic progress has stalled, that the momentum for
reform that existed several years ago has unfortunately
diminished. This sense of complacency is most evident in the
administration of the voter registration system, which is
It highlights a number of problems in the registration process
which, it says, could damage public confidence in the entire
democratic system. Among other things, it says there is a critical
need for a centralised database to eliminate the registration of
fictitious, dead or duplicate voters.
At the time the NDI report was written, Yemen was intending to
hold its first local government elections at the same time as the
parliamentary elections - which, in the NDI’s view, was likely
to prove impossible.
"Preparations for local elections are seriously, and
probably fatally, behind schedule," it said, pointing out
that the Supreme Elections Committee was still struggling to draw
up boundaries for thousands of local districts "with
inadequate demographic information" and, on election day,
would have to oversee voting for 7,000 public offices when the
most it has handled up to now is the 301 parliamentary seats.
Because of these difficulties, the NDI suggested postponing the
local elections. While the fate of the local elections is still
undecided, President Salih might easily have cited the voter
registration problems identified by the NDI as a reason to delay
the elections for parliament - though he didn’t.
The proposed constitutional changes must be debated by
paliament within two months and, if approved by a 75% majority,
will be submitted to a national referendum. Although there are
some murmurings of opposition, it is likely that MPs will not be
disappointed to see their term extended.
Opposition parties are also ill-placed to fight an election
next April. The NDI, while noting reports of government harassment
which it "is not in a position to evaluate", says the
opposition parties themeselves are largely to blame for their
"Many opposition parties seem unwilling or unable to
establish themselves as an effective opposition and present clear
alternatives to the government in a consistent way," it says.
It accuses many parties of being "more content to complain
about their current predicament … than to organize themselves to
expand their membership and influence. Each party needs to assume
responsibility for its own situation and to consider the future of
a united Yemen instead of nurturing historical grievances."
Last weekend police briefly detained five leaders of the Yemen
Socialist Party on charges of meeting without a permit. They had
been meeting in Aden to prepare for the party’s fourth general
congress, due to open in Sana'a, on August 30.
Meanwhile, the exiled opposition group, Mowj, has announced its
suspension of opposition activity "so that we can all
effectively contribute to national and regional stability and
cement by our combined efforts the principle of regional
partnership laid down in the Jeddah border agreement between the
Republic of Yemen and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."
A statement on the group’s website praised President Salih
for "his ability and political will to address the urgent
Mowj was formed from various southern Yemeni elements who
fought and lost a brief war of secession in 1994, with Saudi
backing. After the war, it set up headquarters in London, from
where it waged a propaganda campaign against the Sana’a
Its sudden change of heart is almost certainly a result of the
recent Yemeni-Saudi border agreement under which both sides are
required to stop political, military or propaganda activity
against the other.