by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 25 December 1998
YEMEN is facing a bizarre
constitutional tangle over next year's presidential election. The constitution says that
the election - the first by a direct popular vote - must be competitive, with at least two
candidates. But that is easier said than done. Only two parties can muster the 31 members
of parliament required to nominate a candidate: President Salih's General People's
Congress and the main opposition party, Islah.
when the secretary-general of Islah was asked recently if his party would be fielding a
candidate, he replied: "Our candidate is Ali Abdullah Salih." This declaration
of support for the sitting president will - if maintained up to election day in September
- effectively sabotage any hope of a genuine contest.
Islah's motives are very simple. In the 1997 parliamentary
election, the party secured only 23% of the total votes compared with the GPC's 43%. That
was in a multi-party contest, but in a straight fight between Salih and an Islah
presidential candidate the gap could be even wider. Voters who are unenthusiastic about
Salih might be frightened by Islah's Islamist-traditionalist platform into giving him a
Islah, therefore, appears to have decided not to play into
Salihs hands by providing an opponent to be slaughtered at the ballot box. In so
doing, it could force Salihs party into the ludicrous position of having to nominate
its own second candidate to fight the president - giving all the opposition parties an
opportunity to declare the election a sham.
An alternative would be to remove the problem by changing
the constitution but, coming so soon before an election, this might be perceived as
One of the parties which cannot field a candidate is the
Yemen Socialist Party (YSP), which formerly ruled the south and shared power with the GPC
for four years after Yemen's unification. It boycotted the 1997 elections and so is not
officially represented in parliament.
In Sana'a at the end of November, the YSP held its
Congress the fourth in the party's history and the first since the disastrous
Congress of 1985 which led to a bloody internal coup. More than 1,300 delegates attended
the gathering, which was seen as a move to revive and re-unite the party.
The YSP's secretary-general, Ali Salih 'Ubad, said the
party had decided to "let all bygones be bygones, whether it is with our own members
or with other members of our society." It rescinded the expulsion of exiled former
members, including Ali Salim al-Baid, who led the attempt to establish a separate state in
the south in 1994.
Even if this unites the party, it is likely to annoy the
government and lead to accusations of lingering separatist tendencies, because several of
those reinstated were sentenced to death in their absence at a treason trial earlier this
year. While the conference was taking place, President Salih denounced the YSP as "a
secessionist party which refuses to modify its old methods" and called on it to
apologise for the 1994 war.
Despite complaints or harassment and intimidation by the
authorities, the mood among YSP supporters was that the Congress had been a useful step
towards building an effective opposition in Yemen. However, the party's internal
organisation is still in disarray and another conference is planned to prepare for
elections to the politburo and central committee. At present it is unlikely that the YSP
could field a presidential candidate next year, even if the rules allowed it to do so.