Avoiding elections

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,1 September, 2000

YEMEN’S parliamentary elections, due next April, will be postponed for up to two years under a series of constitutional changes proposed by President Ali Abdullah Salih.

While extending the term of the House of Representatives from four years to six, the changes would also make it easier for the president to dissolve parliament early, on grounds of "necessity".

In a letter to parliament, President Salih suggested that four years was too short a period and pointed to the high cost of holding elections.

Other proposals envisage a greater role for the presidentially-appointed upper house, the Shura Council, which will be expanded from 59 members to 111.

The move to prolong the life of parliament - in which President Salih’s party has a massive majority - came a few days after the Washington-based National Democratic Institute issued a critical report on preparations for next year’s elections.

The NDI, which has experience of electoral processes in many emerging democracies, took a generally favourable view of Yemen’s 1993 and 1997 elections, though it refused to monitor last year’s presidential election in which Salih resoundingly defeated a little-known opponent from his own party.

In its latest report, the NDI says: "It appears to us that Yemen's democratic progress has stalled, that the momentum for reform that existed several years ago has unfortunately diminished. This sense of complacency is most evident in the administration of the voter registration system, which is seriously flawed."

It highlights a number of problems in the registration process which, it says, could damage public confidence in the entire democratic system. Among other things, it says there is a critical need for a centralised database to eliminate the registration of fictitious, dead or duplicate voters.

At the time the NDI report was written, Yemen was intending to hold its first local government elections at the same time as the parliamentary elections - which, in the NDI’s view, was likely to prove impossible.

"Preparations for local elections are seriously, and probably fatally, behind schedule," it said, pointing out that the Supreme Elections Committee was still struggling to draw up boundaries for thousands of local districts "with inadequate demographic information" and, on election day, would have to oversee voting for 7,000 public offices when the most it has handled up to now is the 301 parliamentary seats.

Because of these difficulties, the NDI suggested postponing the local elections. While the fate of the local elections is still undecided, President Salih might easily have cited the voter registration problems identified by the NDI as a reason to delay the elections for parliament - though he didn’t.

The proposed constitutional changes must be debated by paliament within two months and, if approved by a 75% majority, will be submitted to a national referendum. Although there are some murmurings of opposition, it is likely that MPs will not be disappointed to see their term extended.

Opposition parties are also ill-placed to fight an election next April. The NDI, while noting reports of government harassment which it "is not in a position to evaluate", says the opposition parties themeselves are largely to blame for their weakness.

"Many opposition parties seem unwilling or unable to establish themselves as an effective opposition and present clear alternatives to the government in a consistent way," it says.

It accuses many parties of being "more content to complain about their current predicament … than to organize themselves to expand their membership and influence. Each party needs to assume responsibility for its own situation and to consider the future of a united Yemen instead of nurturing historical grievances."

Last weekend police briefly detained five leaders of the Yemen Socialist Party on charges of meeting without a permit. They had been meeting in Aden to prepare for the party’s fourth general congress, due to open in Sana'a, on August 30.

Meanwhile, the exiled opposition group, Mowj, has announced its suspension of opposition activity "so that we can all effectively contribute to national and regional stability and cement by our combined efforts the principle of regional partnership laid down in the Jeddah border agreement between the Republic of Yemen and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."

A statement on the group’s website praised President Salih for "his ability and political will to address the urgent internal issues".

Mowj was formed from various southern Yemeni elements who fought and lost a brief war of secession in 1994, with Saudi backing. After the war, it set up headquarters in London, from where it waged a propaganda campaign against the Sana’a government.

Its sudden change of heart is almost certainly a result of the recent Yemeni-Saudi border agreement under which both sides are required to stop political, military or propaganda activity against the other.