Competition suits Salih
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East International, 16 July, 1999
THE NUMBER of would-be contenders in Yemen's first direct presidential election rose to nine last week as the country's fractious opposition parties failed to agree on a single candidate to challenge President Ali Abdullah Salih. The likely effect of this will be to divide the opposition vote among the Socialists, Nasserists and Ba'athists, giving Salih an even easier ride to victory than he might have expected.
Salih has already been nominated twice - first by the main parliamentary opposition party, Islah, and a few days later by his own party, the ruling General People's Congress. Together, these two parties control 289 of the 301 seats in parliament and, under the electoral rules, are the only parties capable of giving final approval to nominated candidates.
Meanwhile the Opposition Co-ordinating Council, which represents the smaller parties and the Yemen Socialist Party (the former ruling party in southern Yemen), met to consider fielding a single candidate. Disagreements ensued and the Socialists broke ranks to nominate their secretary-general, Ali Salih 'Ubad Muqbil. Other parties quickly followed with their own candidates.
None of these can actually enter the contest without the approval of 31 members of parliament, which means that they will need support from President Salih's GPC or the Islah party. Most are likely to get it, partly because the GPC wants the contest to be perceived as free but also because, as far as Salih's electoral chances are concerned, the more opposition candidates the better.
However, talks among potential candidates are continuing and it is expected that some will withdraw before polling day.
Another opposition party, the League of the Sons of Yemen, objects to various aspects of the electoral system and will not be putting forward a candidate. It has advised its supporters to make their own decisions about what to do on polling day.
The question of whether or not to participate in the election has been exercising opposition groups for months. Some argue that by standing (and inevitably losing), they will simply allow the president to take the credit for holding a free election. Others, while harbouring no illusions about the outcome, believe that the election itself is a healthy development which will also provide a useful opportunity to challenge the establishment.