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.
Yet 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 resounding victory.
Islah, therefore, appears to have decided not to play into Salih’s hands by providing an opponent to be slaughtered at the ballot box. In so doing, it could force Salih’s 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 gerrymandering.
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 It rescinded the expulsion of exiled former members, including Ali Salim al-Baid, who led the attempt to establish a separate state in the south in 1994.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.