The Birth of Modern Yemen - Chapter 3

An e-book by Brian Whitaker exploring the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, and its aftermath

3. Origins of political pluralism

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ALTHOUGH unification formally marked the start of multi-party democracy, both parts of Yemen had some previous experience of pluralism and democracy, if only on a very limited scale – and the south had even ventured to include the word “democratic” in its name. These earlier developments, which gave the public a small degree of choice over who would represent them, came from two radically different traditions: Marxist in the south and Islamic or tribal in the north. 

The south had well-established electoral mechanisms, although voters’ choice was usually restricted to a list of approved candidates and freedom of political debate was circumscribed within a Marxist framework. But the ruling Socialist Party was by no means monolithic, having been formed from a coalition of groups fighting against the British, and various factions persisted. The northern system, meanwhile, was adapted from a much older tradition where every man had a right to address his shaykh, every shaykh had a right to address his ruler, and leaders generally had a duty to consider seriously what was said to them. For the sake of national cohesion, the northern government was obliged to take into account the wishes of powerful groups or individuals – especially those with influential tribal connections. Although the pluralistic elements in the north did not amount to formally competing parties, differing viewpoints or political groupings were acknowledged up to a point and, in some cases, even co-opted into the regime. The concept of pluralism did not, however, extend in either part of Yemen to those who had opposed the aims of the northern and southern revolutions (for republicanism and independence, respectively).

By the end of the 1980s, both parts of the country were clearly moving towards pluralism. In the north, although political parties were still technically illegal, the parliamentary elections of 1988 were fought in a remarkably open and competitive atmosphere. In December 1989, the south – for reasons which were largely unconnected with the unification process – announced that it was adopting a multi-party system.

Alongside these elements of democracy and pluralism there was a somewhat stronger element of constitutionalism. For the sake of legitimacy both regimes were concerned that as far as practicable their actions should be perceived as lawful, even though the law was weighted in their favour and tended to be ignored in times of crisis.

The northern political system before unification

AT THE TIME of its creation in 1962, the Yemen Arab Republic lacked almost all the political institutions normally associated with a modern state. The ancient system used by the imams, which relied on face-to-face contact between government and tribal leaders or family heads, might have been sufficient for an unchanging agricultural society, but it was rapidly becoming inadequate. Much of Yemen’s constitutional development since the 1960s had been aimed at rectifying this by attempting to create a formal, structured relationship between government and governed; “to channel support and demands from society to the regime and, conversely, to channel information, appeals, and directives from the regime to society”. [1]

These efforts were hampered at first by the northern civil war of 1962-70, and by the fact that President Abdullah al-Sallal’s regime had too narrow a political base. In 1970 President Abd al-Rahman al-Iryani introduced a new constitution which – unusually for a developing country – survived almost intact for 20 years. Among its most important innovations was a large, mostly elected, Consultative Council. However, since political parties were banned and its members generally lacked any coherent ideology, it became little more than “an assembly of notables, oligarchs grouped into small shifting factions and only tenuously linked to one another and to their constituents.” [2] One of Iryani’s main difficulties was that in order to achieve a reconciliation between the royalists and republicans in the aftermath of the civil war he had to expel the modernist left and give seats in the council to prominent traditionalist shaykhs – which resulted in a narrow centre-right regime.

Attempts by Iryani’s successor, Ibrahim al-Hamdi to re-incorporate the left merely succeeded in forcing out two of the most important tribal leaders, Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar and Sinan abu Luhum. Hamdi also launched three separate initiatives by which he hoped to create a more broadly based centre-left coalition: the Local Development Association movement (LDA), the Correction Movement (which aimed to train and place political cadres at all levels of the state), and the General People’s Congress (GPC). However, he was assassinated in 1977 before they had borne fruit.

President Ali Abdullah Salih’s regime began unpromisingly in 1978 with an even narrower base than its predecessors, since he had little support outside the army. It was the president’s response to this initial weakness that set in motion two processes which continued to characterise his regime even after unification: an attempt to achieve the broadest possible support and to acquire political legitimacy. Salih’s programme of political construction began cautiously but systematically in 1980 with the draft National Charter (al-Mithaq), described by the president as a guide to national life to which all national elements could subscribe. This was subjected to widespread debate with local “plebiscites”, culminating in August 1982 in the election of 1,000 members of the General People’s Congress, which then met to amend and formally adopt the Charter. The whole process allowed much scope for publicity, ceremony, and popular participation. After adopting the Charter, the GPC announced that it would become a permanent “political organisation”, meeting every two years, with internal elections every four. Between these sessions, it would be led by a standing committee of 75 members with President Salih as secretary-general.

To the surprise of some observers, the GPC held its second session as scheduled, in August 1984. In the interim the new Standing Committee had continued to meet regularly. A programme of political education had also begun, with weekly training sessions at workplaces and elsewhere. As a further step towards increased public participation, the second GPC session proposed the election of 17,500 members of Local Councils for Co-operative Development (the successor to the LDAs) which in turn would elect most of the 1,000 members of the next GPC. The elections took place and the new GPC met in August 1986 under the banner “Popular Participation on the Road to Democracy, Development and Yemeni Unity”.

Although the GPC had many of the functions and attributes of a political party, officially it was merely a “political organisation”. The distinction was a subtle but necessary one, since the constitution forbade “partisanship in all its forms” [3] while allowing the formation of “associations and trade unions on a sound national basis” [4]. The objection to parties had its roots in Yemeni traditionalism: a desire to avoid fitna – a word which has connotations of discord and social conflict. But it also served other purposes by helping to maintain national cohesion and restricting the opportunities for organised opposition. Thus the avoidance of the word “party” to describe the GPC was not simply a way of side-stepping the constitutional ban on parties; the GPC differed from most conventional parties in that it had no particular ideology (except in the broad sense of republicanism and nationalism). It was essentially an umbrella, an organisation consisting of other organisations which covered much of the Yemeni political spectrum, from traditionalist to modernist.

Even so, the distinction between “political” and “party” activity proved difficult to maintain. In elections for the Consultative Council, municipal councils and even the GPC’s own internal elections, individual candidates were frequently identified with specific ideologies – Ba’athism, Nasirism, socialism, etc – though in many cases these were secondary to the candidate’s social standing among the electorate. In 1988, Muslim Brotherhood candidates won a large number of seats in the Consultative Council.

The other aspect of acquiring legitimacy was a concern for constitutionalism. The liberal-democratic constitution introduced by President al-Iryani in 1970 at the end of the civil war had been suspended by al-Hamdi when he assumed power in 1974 but largely reinstated by al-Ghashmi in 1978 without the mostly elective Consultative Council, and with an amendment that formally established the presidency. At the same time, al-Ghashmi had also established a “temporary” appointed body, the People’s Constituent Assembly (PCA), which took on many of the quasi-legislative functions of the Consultative Council. Initially, President Salih enlarged the PCA and it began to appear more permanent. However, Salih insisted that a new Consultative Council would eventually be elected – as it was, after much delay, in 1988. Salih clearly felt that his appointment as president by the PCA in 1978 (renewed in 1983) lacked the full legitimacy of the 1970 constitution, and wanted his position confirmed by an elected body. His hesitation stemmed not so much from a fear that anyone would challenge his appointment as the likelihood that the legislative body would be dominated by disruptive tribal and religious elements.

The return to legitimacy finally came on July 5, 1988 when – ten years into Salih’s presidency – 1,600 candidates fought for the 128 elective seats in the new parliament (there were 31 additional members appointed by the president). Despite the relatively small number of registered voters (about 1.2 million), the elections were marked by vigorous campaigning by the Ba’athists, Nasirists, Muslim Brotherhood, and other elements which were – at least nominally – forbidden to have their own parties. These were Yemen’s first parliamentary elections since 1971 and only the second since the birth of the republic. A few days later, parliament elected President Salih for a third five-year term.

The fact that all this had been carried out in accordance with the 1970 constitution (and its subsequent amendments) gave the regime the legitimacy it had been seeking. Only slightly less importantly, the survival of the constitution itself was a significant achievement, and perhaps a tribute to the wisdom of those who drafted it. The 1970 Constitution had envisaged a liberal democracy with elements of traditionalism. In practice, of course, the Yemen Arab Republic was neither liberal nor truly democratic. While it could not be regarded as a totalitarian dictatorship, neither did it have a truly limited, accountable government; essentially it was an oligarchy with democratic attributes. But the constitution laid down a benchmark against which government could be judged, and the fact that the government accepted it as a benchmark was potentially significant for the future.

The southern political system before unification

IN CONTRAST to the traditionalist, free-market north, the PDRY was the only Marxist state in the Arab world, albeit with a brand of Marxism that had been adapted to local conditions. Unlike the north, with its injunctions against partisanship, the southern constitution assigned a specific role to the Socialist Party: to lead political activity “on the basis of scientific socialism … in order to develop the society in a manner which achieves national democratic revolution following a non-capitalist course”. [5] The ideological orientation of the state – again, in contrast to the north – was also enshrined in the constitution, with a commitment to struggle against imperialism, colonialism and “local reactionary feudalism” (article 13), and a declaration that the State is based on a class alliance between the working class, farmers, the intelligentsia, and the petit bourgeoisie, ultimately led by the workers (article 7). The constitution had been issued in 1970 after drafting with assistance from Egyptian and East German experts.

The state apparatus included a parliament (the Supreme People’s Council) and, until 1978, a Presidential Council. The parliament, which initially consisted of 101 members elected triennially through “general, equal, and direct elections” formally issued legislation, established policy guidelines for the Council of Ministers and ratified foreign treaties, the national development plan, and the annual state budget. In practice its functions were somewhat limited, and real power lay with the Presidential Council, which consisted of between three and six members, usually including the President, Prime Minister, and Secretary-General of the Socialist party. The Presidential Council was effectively responsible for executing state policy and overseeing the work of government. It could present its views on foreign and domestic policy to parliament, and ask the Prime Minister for reports on specific programmes. It also initiated debates in parliament and proposed legislation on certain matters.

In 1978 there were a number of constitutional amendments, the most important of which was the abolition of the Presidential Council. It was replaced by an eleven-person Presidium, to be elected by parliament from among its members. To take account of this, membership of parliament was expanded to 111. The chairman of the Presidium became the formal Head of State. In practice, the Presidium lacked the sweeping executive powers previously held by the Presidential Council, and the focus of state power shifted to the President and Council of Ministers (the state’s highest administrative and executive body). Parliament was responsible for electing a majority of the Council of Ministers and the Prime Minister was required to be a member of parliament, to which he was accountable through a vote of confidence.

The Socialist Party had evolved from an alliance of liberation movements struggling against British occupation, and initially was known as the National Front. Virtually all policy decisions were approved by the party’s Central Committee or Politburo long before being referred to parliament for legislation and to the Council of Ministers for implementation. The party exercised this control partly through the legal basis provided for it by the constitution and partly through various organisational mechanisms:

1. Involvement of party members in the state apparatus: 
All ministers and senior officials were party members, as were many junior civil servants and military officers. Normally, the most important ministers (Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Defence) and the State President would be members of the YSP Politburo; other ministers and provincial governors members of the party Central Committee. The involvement of YSP officials could be found at all levels of state decision-making, even down to production councils at the workplace. This did not necessarily mean that non-party members were prevented from playing an important role; in some cases they did, though the party maintained overall control. For example, the first (appointed) People’s Supreme Council actually contained a minority of party members but they were positioned in such a way as to ensure effective control. [6]

2. Vetting of appointments: 
Party agencies under the control of the YSP Central Committee administered the “training, selecting, and placement of the personnel who are entrusted with the task of implementing and checking the implementation of the party line”. [7] In government ministries, a committee of party, union and management representatives approved all transfers and promotions. Candidates for election, and appointments to the military and mass media were also vetted by the party.

3. Mass organisations: 
These were effectively controlled by the YSP but represented various sectors of society – workers, women, youth, peasants, etc. – and had a number of functions:

a) implementing state and party policy at grass-roots level;

b) educating their members in the ideas of socialism and the Yemeni revolution;

c) recruiting new party members;

d) representing the masses at various levels in the political structure;

e) reporting on the effects of policies and proposing changes to them (usually discreetly and then only within permitted limits).

Often, however, the performance of mass organisations failed to satisfy the party leadership. In 1983, for example, Anis Hassan Yahya, secretary of the Central Committee, complained that “unions [and other mass organisations] are still playing a marginal role in economic and social life”. [8] The political consciousness of the peasants was particularly low and it proved difficult to attract new members to their union [9].

While the party maintained effective control of the PDRY, its grasp was not all-embracing. In the parliamentary elections of 1978, for example, about 40% of the successful candidates came from outside YSP ranks. There was also toleration of dissenters outside the party, provided they accepted the basic goals of the revolution and differed only on tactics or aspects of policy. During the early 1970s the criticisms offered by the Popular Democratic Union and the Vanguard Party were respected and to some extent valued. Dissent within the Socialist Party tended to be treated more harshly, and there were frequent purges, usually in the form of demotion or expulsion, though occasionally also arrests and executions. In 1975 the PDRY’s Ambassador to Cairo was reportedly arrested at Aden airport and imprisoned for excessive criticism of state economic planning [10]. 

Another form of dissent was largely apolitical and came from individuals or groups affected by government policy. This included occasional armed but disorganised resistance by tribes, especially during the first few years after independence. Although at an official level the party made strenuous efforts to weaken tribalism, individual members or factions sometimes mobilised fellow tribesmen to support their political position – for example, Ali Nasir’s appeal to the Dathina in 1986 [11].

In addition, there were various counter-revolutionary groups, usually based outside the PDRY which were supported or funded by north Yemen, Saudi Arabia and possibly the United States [12]. There was also a disastrous terrorist campaign organised and funded by the American Central Intelligence Agency, with some assistance from Britain and Saudi Arabia. Yemeni saboteurs were recruited for the plot, which began in 1979 with the intention of weakening the southern government in order to protect the north. About a dozen of them were captured trying to blow up a bridge, tortured, and later executed [13]. 

In the face of such threats, the regime employed a large and formidable secret police force. The entry and movement of foreigners was strictly controlled and in 1975 the government introduced a tough law against fraternisation. In reality, however, the main threat to the Socialist party came from within: as discussed in Chapter 1, the 1986 bloodbath caused untold damage to the party and the standing of its regime.

By 1989, however, the PDRY’s political system was clearly on the verge of major changes. The communiqué issued by the YSP’s Central Committee after its 15th session, held in May, repeatedly stressed the need for “comprehensive political and economic reform”. After calling for an extension of the regime’s social base and the correction of past mistakes, it said:

We must formulate an economic strategy to uplift the national economy as a whole and improve the material and spiritual condition of the masses and develop a social system and system of government of an increasingly democratic nature to expand the participation of the masses in the governing authority … The Central Committee stressed the special significance of expanding and deepening the party’s links with the masses and of paying attention to the masses’ creative powers in order to ensure the freedom to express criticism and to exercise democracy. [14]

A few weeks later, in a speech to mark the anniversary of the “glorious corrective step” [15], Ali Salim al-Baid said: 

Our revolution is preparing to enter a new stage of its development, that is the stage of comprehensive economic and political reform. It is a necessary transition that is dictated by the results of 20 years of progressive construction. It is necessitated by the reality of the general situation and the course of the revolution’s development … the past twenty years, while filled with great work, were not devoid of error which sometimes undermined the cause of the revolution, its values and its ethics …

Democracy is the most fundamental issue in the process of reform. It is the essence of the entire process. It should be understood that democracy is a much broader thing than the newly-created concepts and provisional and partial plans which are quickly converted into exaggerated slogans … The reform we seek is based primarily on a firm and deep commitment to the cause of democracy, a reform which absorbs the tenets of democracy as a way of life, a course that is not only a moral one, but a successful one in enhancing economic, social, political and cultural life … [16]

It is important to note that these reforms were not proposed as a prelude to unification. They were changes the PDRY intended to embark upon regardless of its relations with the north, and were almost certainly influenced more by the glasnost and perestroika of the Gorbachev era in the Soviet Union and changes in eastern Europe than by the improved prospects for Yemeni unity.

Origins of Yemeni democracy: the background factors

DEMOCRATISATION in Yemen is attributable to a combination of factors. Some of them were specific to the needs of the unification process while others merely happened to be present in the background at the time. The latter were not linked to unification directly, though an indirect link developed as they became entwined in the changes that occurred around 1990. To that extent, it could be argued that unification accelerated pre-existing trends and that the political and constitutional re-structuring required by unification created an opportunity to make radical changes which many people already recognised as desirable.

Among the background factors, two were particularly important. One was the fact that both parts of Yemen were already moving towards pluralism and the other was the world-wide political climate in the aftermath of the Cold War. Multi-party democracy in Yemen should not be viewed in isolation, since it emerged during a period of democratic development and experimentation in many parts of the world – most notably eastern Europe as communist systems collapsed, but also in Latin America and parts of Africa where a number of military regimes had been replaced by civilian governments. It is often assumed that the Arab world was immune to this process – so much so that one four-volume study of democracy in developing countries ignored Arab states totally [17]. Similarly, but less perversely, The Economist magazine noted early in 1990 that only five of the 17 major Arab states had elements of political pluralism or could in some sense be considered emerging democracies [18]. However, the five identified by The Economist – Algeria, Egypt, Jordan Morocco and Tunisia – accounted for about 115 million people, more than half the total Arab population. During 1989 and 1990 electoral activity was witnessed in several Arab states: 

Algeria: Local elections in 1990 were considered a genuinely free contest.

Egypt: President Mubarak was forced to dissolve parliament in 1990 and call fresh elections after a court ruled that the law under which the People’s Assembly had been chosen in 1987 was unconstitutional.

Jordan: The first full parliamentary elections for 22 years were held in 1989. Political parties, though illegal, were tolerated.

Kuwait: Carefully-controlled elections paved the way for a reconvening of parliament (which had been dissolved in 1986).

Syria: Elections to People’s Assembly took place in June 1990; only tame parties were allowed but independents increased share of seats.

Tunisia: Parliamentary elections in 1989 allowed some opposition parties to take part. Local elections in 1990 were swept by the ruling party.

In the same period, the Sultan of Oman announced plans to widen representation in the consultative assembly and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia repeated his promise to establish a non-elected advisory council. Meanwhile Sudan moved in the opposite direction when a military coup in 1989 ended its experiment in democratisation. Even in Iraq there were parliamentary elections in 1989 – won, overwhelmingly and predictably, by the Ba’ath Party and its allies but claimed to be a first step towards constitutional reform and pluralism.

These developments were very modest and, with hindsight, not the heralds an Arab political spring but they did reflect an international zeitgeist as the cold war ended and the Soviet Union imploded – a zeitgeist that was also felt in Yemen at the time of unification. There were, however, several additional factors pushing the two parts of Yemen towards democratisation:

1. Legitimacy: 
The southern regime was badly in need of legitimacy, especially in the aftermath of the 1986 conflict and later as a result of the lack of Soviet support and the collapse of Marxist regimes elsewhere. In the north, where the quest for legitimacy had been a consistent feature of the Salih presidency, the situation was less dramatic and a move towards pluralist democracy could be considered a logical continuation of an existing process. 

2. Weakness of the state: 
Despite the original military basis of the northern regime and the gradual strengthening of its control, it remained essentially weak. Unlike some of the other states in the region, it lacked both the capability and the funds to sustain truly authoritarian government. It had always depended on the co-operation of various social and political elements, and to some extent democracy was a way of institutionalising these arrangements. Although the southern state gave the impression of much stronger organisation and pervasiveness, by the end of the 1980s it, too, had become extremely weak. These weaknesses help to explain why, after 1990, the Yemeni experiment in democratisation went much further than any of the other examples in the Arab world (most notably in freedom of expression): the freedom was due less to self-restraint on the part of the government than to its inability to assert control [see Chapter 6].

It was weakness, as much as tolerance, that allowed the first cracks to open up in the north’s non-party system during the 1988 election campaign. The south, on the other hand, succeeded in preserving the appearance of a single-party system until 1989, although the events of 1986 had split the Socialist Party into two (with the survivors on the losing side either suppressed or in exile) and other parties were operating secretly. Thus at one level the introduction of the multi-party system was a formal recognition of existing political realities.

Potentially, the multi-party system also held some advantages for the southern government. For example:

Pluralism, at the beginning anyway, is politically popular; politicians and leaders who can be associated with it without being swept away find that it enhances their influence and authority. Leaders in need of rejuvenation of their legitimacy may find pluralism a strategy that pays off. [20]

This was almost certainly what the southern leaders had in mind when they announced their programme of reforms in 1989. In the north, there was also the possibility that the introduction of parties might weaken the influence of tribal politics and thus assist modernisation. Despite fears in the north about the divisions parties could cause, in general, non-GPC parties were not perceived as alternative governments or threats to the regime. In any case, it was easier to control opposition by incorporating it into the political system rather than excluding it. There was a widespread expectation that parties which succeeded in demonstrating substantial public support would be offered representation in government, broadly in proportion to their level of support. Meanwhile those that wished to oppose the government could do so, but would have to play by the rules of the parliamentary system.

3. Public opinion: 
The extent of public pressure for democratisation is difficult to judge. There were undoubtedly modernisers associated with the governments in both parts of Yemen who favoured it as a matter of principle as well as practicality. There was also some pressure in the north from the small middle class – especially western-educated professionals excluded from the ruling oligarchy – who saw democracy as a means for tackling corruption and injecting new blood into the political system (including, perhaps, their own).

4. The oil industry: 
Several writers have suggested that oil discoveries influenced Yemen’s movement towards democracy [21] The linkage is perhaps more apparent in the south, where the failure to develop the oil industry under Soviet sponsorship [Chapter 1] was partly responsible for the new political opening towards the west (in which democracy was intended to play a part). On the other hand it can be argued that authoritarianism is not necessarily a bar to this type of economic development and that foreign investors tend to be attracted by political stability rather than any particular political system. In the north, the connection was more tenuous, though there was clearly a belief at the time that because of oil Yemen was on the brink of important economic developments and that these would be best served by a more modern governmental and political system.

5. International aid: 
Increasingly, a country’s aid-worthiness in Western eyes depends on showing some evidence of progress towards democracy, respect for human rights, etc. Among other things, this involves holding competitive elections which are open to international inspection. For a poor country such as Yemen, the economic benefits of embarking on this course were potentially significant (and the disadvantages of failing to do so possibly even greater). Although this was not a primary consideration in Yemen at the time, it undoubtedly helped to sway some politicians who were sceptical about the need for democracy.
Democratisation, in its most familiar form, begins when some external catalyst arouses popular opposition to an authoritarian regime. Typically, the regime responds by rejecting change and opposition grows further. Eventually the regime recognises that it must make concessions and negotiates with a view to holding elections. If recognition of the need for concessions comes too late, the regime may collapse or be overthrown [22]. This “normal” model did not fit the situation in Yemen, however, because the impetus towards democratisation came mainly from above, not from below. What happened in Yemen may be better understood by drawing on two alternative models of democratisation described by Huntington: “transformation” (where reform is initiated from above by an elite within the regime) and “transplacement” (where government and opposition both recognise that they are not strong enough individually to determine a country’s political future and co-operate, often through the formation of a government of national unity) [23]. Before unification, both parts of Yemen could be considered to be in the early stages of transformation but unification also introduced an element of transplacement, though the partners in Yemen’s case were not a government and opposition but two rival governments.

National unity and political power

BY 1990 democratic pluralism had become a prerequisite for Yemeni unification; it was a way to address – or rather, sidestep – the intractable question of who would hold ultimate power. In a unified state there can be only one centre of ultimate power. Whoever has power controls the army, the security forces and the rest of the state apparatus. When two states are unified, there has to be a mechanism for determining where ultimate power will lie, for turning two centres of power into one. 
Historical precedents suggest unification may be achieved either by consent or by domination. Domination may take a military form (19th century Italy) or an economic form (Germany after the Cold War), but in either case one side or other needs a sufficient degree of superiority to ensure that its control will not be challenged. If that occurs, the issue is resolved decisively with the weaker side involuntarily relinquishing power, leaving the other supreme.

Unification by consent, on the other hand, is more difficult to achieve because both sides are obliged to relinquish at least some of their power, voluntarily, to the other side. Unless this is done in a way which both sides accept as equitable, one or other may try to win back power later – which is essentially what happened in Yemen in 1994. Successful examples of unification by consent are rare but in the age of monarchies it was sometimes possible to have a situation where two countries came to share the same head of state (as with the union of England and Scotland in 1603).

In 1990, Yemen’s options were somewhat limited. There was no real prospect of unification through domination. Although the ruinous state of the southern economy and the fragility of its regime probably gave the north an edge over its rival, neither side was obviously dominant, especially in terms of military strength: previous confrontations had ended in a stand-off. Thus the only option available was union by consent.

In 1972, when north and south first addressed the question of power in a unified Yemeni state, the proposed solution was to create what they called a “unified political organisation” (in other words, a merger of the two ruling regimes to form a one-party government).

The background to this was that northern attempts to bring down the Aden government had resulted in a military stalemate, followed by an agreement calling for unity within a year [24]. Although never implemented, this agreement was important because it established the framework for subsequent discussions on unity, including the leadership question. Signed under Arab League auspices in Cairo in October 1972, it proposed a state with “one flag and one emblem; one capital; one leadership” [25]. The supplementary Tripoli Agreement, signed a month later, was more explicit:

There will come into existence a unified political organisation which will include all productive groups of citizens ... to work against backwardness. [26]

The precise nature of this “unified political organisation” had been left unstated – deliberately – but since the north had no formal political structure (the General People’s Congress had not yet come into being), the most likely model was the southern National Front which was originally created through an alliance of seven national liberation movements and later joined by three more [27]. Theoretically, then, this existing southern structure could have formed the basis for an expanded organisation embracing other political elements from the north [28]. However, a serious obstacle to using the NF as nucleus for a unified organisation embracing both parts of Yemen was the question of how much of its socialist ideology could or should be retained. The northern attitude towards this tended to fluctuate according to the strength of “anti-Communist” tribal and religious opposition and also the north’s own confidence in its likely political influence after unification. At one point in 1970 the north had been so certain of its ability to control any future political structure that it challenged the south to accept unity “under the government of the south, the capital of the south and the flag of the south” [29]. Two years later, the Tripoli Agreement acknowledged that the unified state would have some ideological basis, if only an extremely broad one. By including elements to satisfy all sections of Yemeni opinion it left the precise nature of this ideology open to many different interpretations:

The state will aim at the realisation of socialism of the Arab Islamic style … and social justice. [30]

The explanation for this ambiguity lies in the negotiating process in Tripoli, where the southern delegation initially sought to include the words “scientific socialism”. The north rejected this and insisted that Islam would be the religion of the new state, and the Sharia the main source of legislation.31 Inclusion of a watered-down reference to socialism and to a unified political organisation was a northern concession in order to secure the references to Islam [32]. A further ambiguity was presented by the Cairo agreement, which envisaged a “republican, national and democratic” system of government [33], adding that 

The constitution of the union will guarantee all the personal and political freedoms to the public and to its various national, professional and trade union foundations and organisations and will adopt all the necessary means to guarantee the practice of these freedoms. [34] 

It is unclear how these political freedoms and a democratic system were to have been reconciled during the 1970s with the creation of a unified political organisation. However, there is nothing in the documents to suggest that multi-party democracy of the kind that emerged in 1990 had been envisaged in 1972; the weight of evidence points towards what would normally be called a one-party state – and in view of the political climate prevailing in much of the developing world during the early 1970s, this is by no means surprising.

The 1972 proposal was still on the table when unification activity resumed at the end of the 1980s. At their summit meeting in Sana’a on May 3-4, 1988, President Salih and Secretary-General al-Baid agreed to “revive the unified political organisation as stipulated in Article 9 of the Tripoli statement … until the two sides reach a joint concept for unified political action in accordance with agreements, provided that the committee concludes its work within the shortest possible time” [35]. When the Committee for a Unified Political Organisation (CUPO) eventually met, more than a year later, its terms of reference were somewhat broader and less specific than either its name or the Tripoli Agreement might suggest. It was instructed “to discuss the future of organisational and political action in the united state” [36] and of the four options considered, only one involved creating a “unified political organisation”:

1. Amalgamation of GPC and YSP within a single framework.

2. YSP and GPC to retain their independence; right of the nationalist forces and national social personalities to practise their political activity.

3. GPC and YSP to disband, leaving freedom to establish [new] political organisations.

4. Establishment of a political organisation in the form of a broad national front including GPC, YSP and nationalist forces loyal to the aims of the September and October revolutions, while preserving the independence of all of them. [37]

In the event, these discussions were short-circuited by the announcement on December 11 that the PDRY was adopting a multi-party system. The decision was part of a package of measures approved by the YSP Central Committee in the wake of the Aden summit [see Chapter 2], ostensibly to pave the way for unification. A statement said the committee had approved “the right to implement a multi-party system within the framework of the constitution, and of the basis and objectives of the glorious 26 September and 14 October revolutions”. It added that the Politburo had been charged with “taking steps aimed at reinstating all the national elements and forces which struggled against British colonialism and its local supporters. Also, it charged [the Politburo] with reinstating all the national elements loyal to the principles of the Yemeni revolution which had abandoned wrong approaches …” and went on to call for a debate on changes to the press laws and “urgent arrangements” for the publication of new newspapers [38].

Conceivably the YSP’s move was intended to pre-empt the CUPO’s deliberations and force the north to follow suit, but it seems more likely that the south decided on unilateral action because at that stage there was still no certainty that unification would be accomplished. The PDRY was actively pursuing alternatives, one of which involved adapting to the end of the Cold War and re-presenting the country in a form more acceptable to the West. Regardless of the progress of the unity talks, democratisation was also part of the process of the southern glasnost that continued almost to the moment of unification.

Another factor was that the YSP had become increasingly alarmed by events in eastern Europe, especially Romania where the Ceausescu regime was finally swept away in the last week of December 1989. By opening up the political system to previously excluded elements, the YSP was hoping to save its own skin.
Nevertheless, a merger of the two main southern and northern parties was still under active discussion at the Aden summit in November 1989 – less than six months before unification – with the aim of creating a unified political leadership before holding elections in which independent “national forces” would also be allowed to run [39]. The difficulties in forming a single party by this stage were formidable. Virtually the only factor working in its favour in 1989 was that the ideological gap was narrowing as the YSP abandoned its Marxist baggage. Against that, the world’s political climate had changed considerably since the proposal was mooted in 1972 and, more importantly perhaps, so long as neither party was willing to be subsumed by the other there was no real prospect of a merger being achieved.

Thus, shortly before unification, the political development of the new state was proceeding along two different tracks: on the one hand it was moving towards a multi-party system, while on the other the idea of a unified ruling party had not been abandoned. The two concepts were not altogether incompatible, since it would have been feasible for a merged YSP and GPC to exist alongside other – much smaller – parties. But their domination would have been so great as to make the multi-party system irrelevant for most practical purposes. That was not the end of the plan for a “unified political organisation”, however. Discussions about merging the GPC and YSP continued sporadically after unification, and almost succeeded just before the 1993 parliamentary elections, when one of the few remaining obstacles appeared to be the choice of a name for the new party [Chapter 10].

Meanwhile, for reasons explained in Chapter 2, the need for unification was becoming urgent; if delays occurred the opportunity could easily be lost. There was thus a growing need for “quick fixes” to sweep away outstanding problems: to celebrate the marriage and worry about consummation later. Conveniently, pluralist democracy offered a ready mechanism to deliver unification while side-stepping the question of ultimate power which had proved such a stumbling block in the past. Disagreements about the creation of a “unified political organisation” could thus be put into abeyance in the name of democracy.

It was therefore agreed that the YSP and GPC would retain their separate identities for the time being, while joining forces in a coalition government. This allowed them to retain their separate identities and – crucially, as it turned out – their own armies [40]. That decision, motivated more by force of circumstance than by deliberate intent, advanced the development of pluralism in Yemen but simultaneously planted the seeds of conflict.

© Copyright Brian Whitaker 2009