Democratisation derailed

Democratisation derailed

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,26 November, 1999

THE AFTERMATH of Yemen's presidential election, in which Ali Abdullah Salih was returned to power with a 96% majority, raises questions about the likely course of democracy in the country.

During the political spring of the early 1990s, with dozens of political parties and a virtually unrestricted press, Yemen appeared the most promising candidate in the Arab world for full-scale democratisation. But nine years on, there is a growing sense of sterility.

The problem, partly, is one of perception and unfulfilled expectations. In fact, Yemen has gone further down the democratic road than any of its neighbours and, apart from the recent much-criticised presidential election, has held two reasonably successful parliamentary elections (in 1993 and 1997). But the high hopes raised in 1990 when north and south Yemen united were, to some extent, misplaced and disappointment was bound to follow. The pluralism that came with unification was largely a coping mechanism to contain unresolved differences between the two rival regimes. The press was free because the government, beset with its own internal problems, was powerless to interfere.

Today, the seemingly unassailable dominance of the president and his party, the General People's Congress, holds out little prospect in the near future for the peaceful alternation of power envisaged by the constitution. The signs are that Yemen will remain a nominal democracy, meeting western criteria in terms of attracting aid, but little else.

Opposition parties blame this on the government's electoral tactics, the massive resources that it can pour into campaigning, and some manipulation of electoral registers. But this is not the whole story: Yemen has no credible opposition, and the opposition parties themselves are at least partly to blame for that.

The Socialists, the Ba'athists, the Nasserists and others are in a sorry state. Their roots hark back to ideologies whose time has passed and, on the whole, they are dominated by an ageing leadership. They have little to say that is new or more obviously relevant to the problems that Yemen faces than the policies of the GPC.

Opposition in Yemen tends to be equated with rejectionism - boycotting elections, trying to destablise the government, and so forth. Few, if any, politicians understand the art of effective opposition in a democracy.

The Islah party, an alliance of traditional tribal and Islamist elements, probably comes closest. Despite its suspicion of democracy, it has played the democratic game more cleverly than the leftist parties. It is surprisingly pragmatic and willing to compromise where it sees an advantage in doing so - to the extent that some critics refuse to recognise it as an opposition party at all. Nevertheless, it is the largest non-government party in parliament, though its policies probably frighten too many voters for it to be a viable alternative to the GPC.

The lack of an effective opposition should worry President Salih as much as anybody, because people who see no prospect of change through the ballot box are liable to resort to other means. Just as the government claimed that it had finally wiped out the remnants of the "Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan", a new group surfaced, calling itself HATM (the "self-determination movement"). This appears to have some connection with Ali Salim al-Baid, the former YSP leader and Vice-President who fled the country after the internal conflict of 1994. According to as-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper he is now - after several years of silence - backing the idea of armed struggle, especially in southern and eastern Yemen.

Even with the best intentions, Yemen is not going to become a fully-fledged democracy overnight. But if it is to continue towards that goal, two things must happen. Firstly, the old opposition parties must bury their differences and develop some ideas with a broad popular appeal. Secondly, the government should be less fearful of engaging with the opposition on equal terms.

One constructive step which the government could take would be to reform the rules for selecting presidential candidates. The current requirement is that nominees need the support of 10% of parliament. In a first-past-the post electoral system that threshold is almost always going to be too high for all but the two largest parties (in Britain, for example, it would exclude the Liberal democrats). The system of "initiative committees" adopted in Russia to put forward presidential candidates is one solution that might work in Yemen.

The parliamentary vetting procedure in Yemen, together with various criteria laid down by the constitution (such as not being married to a foreigner) seems designed to weed out "unsuitable" candidates. But in a democracy it is the people, not other politicians, who decide whether a candidate is suitable to be president.