by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 26 January, 2001
GROUP of opposition parties in Yemen have buried their
differences to contest local elections and resist constitutional
The move is seen by some as the
most promising development for several years in a political system
dominated by President Ali Abdullah Salih’s party, the General
People’s Congress, and the official opposition party, Islah,
which often collaborates with it.
Hitherto, other opposition parties
have had a tendency to boycott elections or to split the
anti-government vote by standing against each other.
The alliance, which includes the
Socialist Party under the umbrella of the Opposition Coordination
Council, attempted to field a candidate in the 1999 presidential
election but was prevented by the electoral rules from doing so.
This time the parties are hopeful
of winning some seats in the poll on February 20, especially in
southern and central Yemen – though their expectations are not
They are also urging a
"no" vote in the simultaneous referendum on amendments
to the constitution which will increase the term of parliament
from four years to six, and of the president from five years to
Both the GPC and Islah are
supporting the amendments, with strong backing from the official
Yemeni media. A number of people who stuck up "vote no"
posters in Aden are reported to have been arrested.
The result of the referendum is a
foregone conclusion but, in the unlikely event of the amendments
being rejected, parliamentary elections – for which the
bureaucracy is totally unprepared - would be due this April.
To ensure success, President Salih
has been touring the country inaugurating new projects. He has
also presented 240 ploughs to farmers.
The opposition parties, meanwhile,
are campaigning with minimal funds, some of which – in the case
of the Socialist Party – have been frozen by the authorities.
As usual, there are complaints
about the electoral registers, despite the correction of 190,000
names on the lists. In some areas, opposition figures claim, the
number of registered voters exceeds the total population.
In what may security sources said
was an election-related incident, several people were shot dead on
January 10 while praying at a village mosque near Amran.
Despite claims that the shooting
was sparked by an argument over the choice of candidates,
villagers interviewed by the Yemen Times denied any political
connection. There is also a dispute about the number of dead,
variously reported to be between four and nine, including the Iman
of the mosque.
On January 17 a German oil expert
became the first foreigner to be kidnapped in Yemen this year.
Luther Fielenberg, 53, had arrived in the country a week earlier
to work for the German firm, Preussag Energie.
He was released two days after his
abduction in Shabwa by the Kurab tribe, who were reportedly
demanding that Preussage employ 50 tribesmen.
Last year, eight foreigners were
kidnapped in six separate incidents. Although one hostage died,
this was easily the lowest hostage total for at least five years.
Twenty-seven foreigners were kidnapped in 1999, 42 in 1998, 50 in
1997 and 23 in 1996.
The decline is probably due more
to a lack of opportunities than a lack of inclination among
kidnappers: there are fewer foreigners in the country, they are
more aware of the risks, and tourists are restricted to areas
Complaining that there were no
suitable foreigners available, the Bani Dhabyan tribe abducted the
32-year-old son of the mayor of Sana’a on January 10. He was
still being held as MEI went to press.
The Bani Dhabyan – no strangers
to the kidnap scene – are seeking the release of six tribesmen
charged, among other things, with kidnapping a Dutchman in 1997
and four Germans in 1999.