Doves and eagles fight for votes: Yemen prepares for elections

Doves and eagles fight for votes: Yemen prepares for elections

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in The Guardian, 24 April 1997

TUNE IN to Yemen Radio this week for what will possibly be the longest and certainly the most tedious election broadcast in the history of democracy. All being well, it should take 30 hours.

Before the polls open on Sunday, announcers will read out the names of all 2,311 parliamentary candidates, summarise their policies and describe their logos. They will then read the names of 25,000 electoral officials.

The announcers have been drilled to read in flat tones, without a hint of favouritism and, above all, without yawning. Dull as it sounds, this is a vital exercise in a country where rural illiteracy rates can be as high as 84 per cent.

For the illiterate, each party or independent candidate has a unique logo for use on the ballot paper. This has turned the election - Yemen's second under a multi-party system - into a contest between horses, camels, doves, eagles, owls and such aspirational symbols as a Harley Davidson and a Kalashnikov.

At the other end of the literacy scale, President Ali Abdullah Salih's party, the General People's Congress (GPC), has launched an Internet website.

Although a dozen parties and 1,557 independents are competing, there are only two heavyweight contenders. The GPC looks set to win a majority in the 301-seat parliament. The Islah (Reform) party, an uncomfortable alliance of traditional tribal elements and Islamic radicals, expects to come a strong second. The GPC and Islah have been sharing power since 1994, although Islah, the junior partner, functions at times as a party of opposition.

Under a deal, the two main parties are not challenging each other in about 90 seats. This tactic, designed to avoid splitting the pro-government vote and benefiting opposition parties, has aroused the concern of the American monitoring organisaton, the National Democratic Institute. Since nominations closed, 1,540 independent candidates have also withdrawn. Yesterday, there were claims that some had been paid about £2,000 to stand down.

Although voting procedures have been tightened since 1993, there have been complaints of irregularities in voter registration. Five parties are boycotting the elections, claiming they are unfair. The most prominent is the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP), the once Marxist party which formerly ruled South Yemen and in 1994 led an attempt to secede after four years of union with the north. It was defeated in a two-month war and many of its leaders are in exile.

Today the YSP appears to have little support and the boycott may be a device to avoid humiliation.

Whatever the outcome of Sunday's polls, everyone expects a coalition government to follow. In a land where blood feuds last for generations and tribes maintain well-armed militias, alliances offer the only route to political survival. President Salih knows that well.

The other reason for coalition is that Yemen's party system is curiously fluid and devoid of ideology. There are differences of style, but few disagreements on policy.

"Most candidates could equally belong to any party,' one election organiser said. 'In general, people just vote for the Big Man in their area.' However, underlying the party system is a tradition of tribal and religious allegiances.

For many Yemenis the electoral process is more important than the outcome. It is about creating stability, civil society and a modern state. For others, it is about integrating Yemen into the international system. If election monitors give a favourable verdict, the country will have established its democratic credentials. If not, Yemen will pay a heavy price in lost foreign aid.