by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East International, 12 January, 2001
YEMEN'S first local government elections, due next month, look set to turn into a three-way contest.
The Yemen Socialist Party and the conservative-Islamist Islah party will both be fielding candidates, along with President Ali Abdullah Salih’s General People’s Congress.
For the YSP, the formerly Marxist party which ruled southern Yemen before unification in 1990, this will be the first test of its electoral strength since the war, almost seven years ago, in which the south attempted to secede from the north.
The YSP boycotted the 1997 parliamentary election and was prevented by the electoral rules from contesting the presidency in 1999.
Although a party spokesman described the local elections as "basically ornamental" (since key officials will still be appointed by the president and prime minister) the YSP will be fielding more than 300 candidates and is hoping to win seats in the southern provinces, as well as Ta’izz further north.
The Islah party, meanwhile, was still wavering over whether to participate when President Salih turned up unexpectedly at its special conference on January 3.
"I am not here to pressurise you to participate in the elections," he told the gathering, according to the Yemen Observer. "You have every right to boycott if you want, but I am saying that you will regret it if you get out of the political game like others had done before."
Following the president’s intervention, members left the decision on participation to Islah’s Political Department, and it is expected that they will decide to take part.
A boycott is, however, threatened in al-Baidha province, where sheikhs of the Radman Aal Awadh tribe and several hundred supporters held a three-day sit-in at the government offices.
They are seeking a separate electoral district for their area, which has 32,000 people. Unusually, it already has a local council, elected in 1983, which has continued to meet despite the absence of funds from central government.
At the elections, on February 20, voters will also be asked to approve constitutional amendments which, among other things will extend the term of parliament from four years to six, and that of the president from five years to seven. The YSP is opposing the amendments.
In Aden, where security has been extremely tight since the attack on USS Cole last October, five small bombs exploded in the space of two days.
One exploded outside a church on January 1, while another - probably a shell or rocket-propelled grenade - missed its target, the Continental Hotel, and fell into the sea. Both attacks seemed directed against New Year festivities, which have often been denounced by Islamists.
The following day, the offices of the official Saba news agency were targeted and two more explosions were reported on major roads. There were no injuries.
The Yemeni authorities said they had arrested Nasser Awadh al-Shiba, a member of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, which kidnapped 16 western tourists two years ago.
Altogether, 20 Islamists are said to have been rounded up in Aden and the neighbouring province of Abyan in connection with the blasts.
Last weekend, the YSP’s office at Shaab, in Dhali’ province, was badly damaged by an explosion. Again, there were no casualties.