screen of Yemen's paranoid poll
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in The Guardian, 3 May
Almost a week after
its elections, Yemen is still waiting for a final result. Counting votes can be as
frustrating as counting the hours.
In the corner of the room, behind a loose-fitting black
curtain, is a small table. This is the polling booth where President Ali Abdullah Salih of
Yemen is about to vote. The front-running candidate happens to be his son, Ahmad, just
back from Sandhurst.
The room is tightly packed with officials, election
observers and journalists. And, as the president goes behind the curtain, the crowd
Suddenly there's a gap between the curtain and the wall.
Through it can be seen the president's ballot paper and a hovering pen.
By midday, news arrives that at least 11 people have been
killed in various shooting incidents. With 3.2 guns per person in Yemen, that makes it a
pretty normal day.
Everyone suspects everyone else of cheating. The most
trivial incident can start a fantastic rumour. One party has been giving voters free pens.
Within hours the whole country has heard they contain 'magic ink' which disappears a few
minutes after using them to vote.
It's at the counting stage that distrust really comes to
the fore. In a room full of suspicious minds, nobody gets away with anything.
At a school in the old part of Sana'a the chairman of the
election committee passes the first ballot box around for inspection. Everyone -
candidates, observers and officials - agrees it is sealed. The chairman opens the box and
tips the ballot papers on to the floor. It goes round the room again. All agree it is
The chairman takes the first ballot paper from the pile
and announces 'Horse' (logo of the president's party, the General People's Congress). He
waves it around for all to see. The voter has indeed chosen the horse. And so it goes on:
horse, sun, horse, camel, horse - each held up to view.
Now an independent candidate objects. The tick against one
voter's horse has strayed into the box of the candidate above. It goes into a separate
When objections have been resolved, the votes are finally
counted. The first box, with about 200 ballot papers, has taken one hour 20 minutes. There
are 37 boxes to go.
Yemen's second-largest party, Islah, issues a list of
electoral transgressions committed by others. But it refrains from denouncing the whole
election; it wants to see how many seats it has won first.
In his mountain stronghold, the leader of Islah, Sheikh
Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, head of the Hashid Tribal Federation, holds a press
conference setting out his terms for joining another coalition.
The president's party is confident of an overall majority
but wants a coalition with Islah because that will help keep its militant Islamist wing
under control. The prime minister is sure Islah will co-operate, and explains why.
Currently, Islah runs Islamic Institutes - ostensibly
religious schools - which it uses for indoctrination and recruitment of party members. If
Islah refuses to join the coalition, these will be brought under state control.
By now the rumour mill is at full power. Figures from the
first ballot boxes leak out. People extrapolate results for whole constituencies - and
from them, the result of the entire election.
At 6 pm, televised live, election officials announce they
have nothing to announce. To howls of disbelief the spokesman insists there are no results
yet - enough to convince many people the returns are being suppressed.
But the international election observers have heard it all
before. 'As far as we know everyone's still counting,' one says. 'Either that or they've
The first real results show the GPC winning about
two-thirds of the seats, with Islah faring badly. Islah now condemns the results as
Meanwhile the international observers report. The
Washington-based National Democratic Institute describes the election as 'a positive step
in the democratic development of Yemen'. Another group, which includes European Union
observers, says the elections are, on balance, 'reasonably free and fair', but it notes a
number of irregularities. Among other things, the secrecy of the ballot has been
compromised in some areas by 'the absence of adequate screens' around booths. Indeed it
has, Mr President.
The time limit of 72 hours for completing the count is
long past; the death toll has reached 21 and results from 16 seats are still awaited.
In Britain, Tony Blair wins a similar majority. Nobody
accuses him of cheating.