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Salih's election knockout

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in Middle East International, 16 May 1997

Yemen's second multi-party election has produced a knock-out victory for President Ali Abdullah Salih's party, the General People's Congress. After the crises and conflicts of recent years the result is ostensibly a vote for stability, though it has also changed the political dynamics of the country - with uncertain effects.

It is the first time since north-south unification in 1990, and the accompanying democratisation, that a single party has held a clear mandate. For the last seven years the GPC has held sway by dominating the middle ground in a three-party system, alternately playing off the Yemen Socialist Party (which previously ruled the south) and Islah (an alliance of tribal and Islamist elements) against each other.

That game is now over. The YSP is out of parliament, having chosen - amid bitter internal recriminations - to boycott the election. For the YSP, this looks like the end of a long, relentless, and perhaps inevitable decline which was hastened by the secessionist war of 1994. It is difficult to see how the party can ever recover unless President Salih finds a tactical need to revive it.

In the election on April 27, the sole beneficiary of the YSP's suicidal tendencies was the GPC, which won 187 of the 301 seats (64 more than in 1993). Its only significant rival, Islah, won 53; five seats went to Nasserist and Ba'athist parties, and 54 to candidates described as independent. Thirty-nine "independents" have since declared their support for the GPC and six for Islah. Two results are still undeclared.

In theory this overwhelming majority gives the GPC the muscle to push through its plans, including some potentially unpopular economic measures. But the fractious make-up of Yemen means that even now it cannot afford to be perceived as domineering. For the sake of national unity the new government will include some non-GPC ministers though - in President Salih's words - they will be participants, not partners. This means that, unlike previous coalitions, the government's programme will be that of the GPC, not a cobbled-together compromise.

Politically, the two most problematic areas for the GPC lie in relations with Islah and with the south, the YSP's former stronghold. The fact that Islah failed (just) to win the 60 seats regarded as its minimum target may fuel arguments from its radical wing against continuing to participate in government or even in the democratic process.

If possible, the GPC will force Islah into the government in order to restrain it. The key to this is the Islamic Institutes - schools which Islah uses for indoctrination and recruitment and on which it hopes to base its future political strength. If Islah co-operates with the GPC it will be allowed to keep them; if not, they will be brought under state control.

Three years after the war of secession, there is still discontent in the south, partly kept at bay with heavy-handed security measures. Leaders in Sana'a argue, with some justification, that the level of discontent and the violence of its suppression was far greater under YSP rule before 1990. Their long-term strategy is win acceptance by ensuring that southern interests are well represented in government and by smothering discontent with investment. With Yemen's economy looking healthier than it has for many years, there is a fair chance that the strategy will succeed. Currently, a disproportionately high share of the national budget is spent in the south and there are ambitious development plans.

Although aggrieved parties have denounced the elections as fraudulent, 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". The Washington-based National Democratic Institute described them as "a positive step in the democratic development of Yemen" but said the validity or otherwise of the results was a matter for Yemenis themselves.

In the eyes of many Yemenis proper conduct of the electoral process is 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.

Because safeguards against fraud have made the voting system slow, in some areas polling continued after nightfall, beyond the legal time limit and without electric lighting. Counting was equally laborious, with each ballot paper held aloft for scrutiny. This meant that many results were not announced within the statutory 72 hours - giving rise to wild rumours and speculation. However, with some important exceptions, the broad picture was one of electoral officials working diligently in less-than-ideal conditions.

More serious criticism centred on irregularities in the registration of voters (MEI 548). There appears to have been abuse on all sides - the victorious GPC itself lodged 50,000 objections - so the overall effect was possibly neutral. There were repeated allegations of military voters registering in areas where the government needed extra support but, despite appeals for information, the NDI observers failed to find hard evidence.

In any case, a more effective way to manipulate the outcome is through tactical candidacies. This is the system whereby parties consolidate their votes by persuading other candidates to withdraw or fragment an opponent's vote by encouraging additional candidates to stand. Although widely practised, it is entirely legitimate except where bribery is involved.

Aside from these qualms, the logic of the situation and - so far as anyone can judge - the climate of opinion pointed towards an overall majority for the GPC. The huge margin of its victory is attributable, more than anything, to the absence of the YSP.

In the long term, the lack of an effective and credible opposition cannot be healthy: democracy is a game for more than one player. Paradoxically this may help Yemeni democracy to strike deeper roots because, in the short term, it presents no threat to the status quo. The country can safely move on to direct elections for the presidency, regional governors and local authorities. Yemen is still an emerging democracy, though it has emerged further than any of its neighbours. The real test of the system's resilience will be the manner in which President Salih is eventually replaced.


In the Yemen section




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Last revised on 06 August, 2015