The 1997 elections

A dozen parties and 1,557 independents competed in Yemen’s second set of multiparty elections on 27 April. President Ali Abdullah’s party, the General People’s Congress won a comfortable victory with 187 of the 301 seats (64 more than in 1993). Its main rival, Islah (an alliance of tribal and Islamist elements) won 53 seats, 5 went to Nasserist and Ba’athist parties, and 54 to candidates described as independent. The YSP had earlier chosen - amid bitter internal recriminations - to boycott the elections.

The voting system was far better prepared and organised than for the first elections in 1993. The process was closely watched by international monitors, candidates’ representatives, and - for the first time - thousands of trained Yemeni observers. Reports by the international observers, while critical of some aspects, were broadly favourable. The Joint International Observer Group in Yemen, representing 13 countries and the European Commission, found that on balance, considering all the circumstances, the elections were "reasonably free and fair".

For many Yemenis proper conduct of the electoral process was more important than the outcome itself: the ability to do it by the rule-book is a prerequisite for building a modern state. Following criticisms of the 1993 election, procedures this time were much improved, especially in the use of party symbols to help illiterate voters. Most of the irregularities reported on election day were relatively minor: more cock-up than conspiracy. More serious criticism centred on irregularities in the registration of voters. There appeared to have been abuse on all sides, so the overall effect was possibly neutral.

Voting took place in a mainly relaxed mood, three years to the day after the outbreak of the 1994 civil war. The final days of the the campaign had seen an unexpectedly vigorous but generally good-natured contest, complemented by a 30 hour radio broadcast, detailing the names of all 2,311 parliamentary candidates, summarising their policies and describing their logos, followed by the names of 25,000 electoral officials.

Mutual suspicion and distrust came to the fore at the counting stage: in a room full of suspicious minds, nobody gets away with anything. At a school in Sana’a the first of 38 ballot boxes (with about 200 ballot papers) took one hour twenty minutes to resolve the objections and count. No wonder the results from 16 seats were still awaited after the time limit of 72 hours for completing the count was long past.