by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 9 March, 2001
local government elections on February 20 were marred by more than
100 violent incidents around the country. Although the precise
death toll – along with most other things in these elections -
is disputed, news agency reports indicate that at least 45 people
died on election day or during the prolonged and turbulent
counting of votes. In some areas tanks and forces of the elite
Republican Guard were deployed.
In al-Baydah, a Nasserite
candidate was killed in a counting centre as he was leading by 700
votes with the last ballot box being counted. In the same
province, an independent candidate was shot dead.
In Ibb, an Islah party candidate
was dragged away and killed after being declared the winner.
Meanwhile an independent candidate opened fire with an automatic
rifle after an argument with a candidate from the ruling General
In Saadah, tribesmen fired on a
helicopter carrying ballot boxes, and would not allow it to land,
claiming the government had forced their candidates to withdraw.
The long-awaited elections were
supposed to be the final stage in constructing a democratic
framework which already includes an elected lower house of
parliament, an appointed upper house and direct presidential
In the light of complaints that
the new local councils will have very little power, the ferocity
of the contest for seats in them is, at first glance, surprising.
Many of the violent quarrels arose
out of complaints of malpractice and most, but not all, involved
rival supporters of the ruling GPC and the largest non-government
party, Islah, which has both conservative and radical Islamist
Islah accused the GPC of using
state resources – the official media, the army and government
funds – to bolster its campaign. The GPC, in turn, accused Islah
of terrorism. Unlike the other opposition parties, Islah has an
efficient grass-roots organisation and countered the official
media by campaigning through the mosques.
In Marib, where it became clear
during the count that Islah was winning, the army attempted to
transfer remaining ballot boxes for counting inside their camp.
According to the Yemen Times, tribesmen confronted the army with
bazookas and 70 vehicles, bristling with armed Islah supporters,
blocked the road. The result was a resounding victory for Islah,
which won 86 council seats to the GPC’s 23.
Voting was prevented from taking
place in 200 polling stations, either by violence or technical
problems such as the non-arrival of ballot boxes. In some areas
the wrong ballot papers arrived and in others the party symbols on
ballot papers (used to help illiterate voters identify the
candidates) were incorrect.
Some of this may be due to the
fact that the Supreme Elections Committee, which is responsible
for organisation, had been given only three months to prepare.
With 26,000 candidates competing
for 7,000 seats, the organisational task was on a different scale
from the last parliamentary election, where a mere 1,557
candidates contested 301 seats. The potential for quarrels between
candidates and complaints of malpractice was also proportionally
Final results are not known, and
may not be for some time if threatened legal challenges come to
fruition. Although an overall victory for the GPC is assumed, the
Yemen Socialist Party – which boycotted the last parliamentary
in 1997, is understood to have done well in two southern
provinces, Abyan and Hadramaut, but badly in Aden, which was once
A referendum held on the same day
is officially declared to have given 70% approval to consitutional
changes which will extend the president’s term from five years
to seven, and that of parliament from four years to six.
Commenting on the elections and
referendum, the army newspaper, "26 September",
described them as "an expression of a better future" and
"a luminous spot on the road of national gains".
Others have been less
complimentary. "It amazes any observer that despite more than
10 years' experience with democracy and political pluralism … we
have not got any closer to really allowing the Yemeni people to
decide freely and objectively what is right for the future of the
country," an article in the Yemen Times said.
It is certainly clear that
substantial numbers of people in Yemen are only content to let
voting take its natural course so long as the outcome is in their
favour. And, with weapons so readily available, aggrieved parties
are in a position to give as good as they get.