Election milestone

Election milestone

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International, 16 April 1993

YEMEN'S first multi-party elections, scheduled for April 27, will be a milestone for the country itself and the Arabian peninsula as a whole. For Yemen, they will be the final seal on unification, ending the period of transitional government which began in May 1990 when the northern and southern states merged. For the peninsula, they will be the first elections under universal suffrage - a development which Yemen's richer and more autocratic neighbours view with disquiet.

If voting is completed successfully, few will be sorry to see the end of the "temporary" power-sharing government comprising the General People's Congress (GPC), which once ruled the north, and the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP), which previously ruled the south. Their three-year partnership has been far from easy; the difficulties came to a head last year when the Socialist vice-president, Ali Salim al-Baid, staged a one-man strike which lasted some three months.

While the elections will undoubtedly give politicians of all parties a measure of legitimacy that they have hitherto lacked, it remains to be seen whether that will be translated into a government with the strength to tackle Yemen's daunting problems. Despite hopes of modest prosperity in the future (thanks to discoveries of gas and oil), for the moment the economy staggers along almost on a day-to-day basis, with reports of banks running out of cash and of government employees failing to get their pay packets. Wild fluctuations in the value of the Yemeni riyal last December were officially blamed on greedy money-changers in the suqs - an easy scapegoat.

Whatever happens at the polls, the new government is widely expected to be another coalition - almost certainly led by the President's GPC. Besides the GPC and the YSP there are some 50 other parties, plus numerous independent candidates, all preparing to fight for just 301 seats, so the emergence of a clear winner would mean a lot of losers. Consequently most political leaders reject the idea of a British-style winner-takes-all election: they would rather make sure of getting something by striking a bargain with their opponents than risk losing everything.

Furthermore, although the GPC and YSP officially regard themselves as rivals for power in the coming contest, there are persistent reports that they will shortly merge. Despite strenuous efforts by the Socialists to shake off their Marxist past and to develop their organisation in the north, they are almost certain to lose ground in the elections because of changes in constituency boundaries. Merger with the GPC could thus be a means of self-preservation for some Socialists, if not for the party itself.

There are even suggestions that the Islamic-traditionalist party, Islah ("Reform") may join the new government. For the moment, though, Islah boasts that it is "the only real opposition party". In the past, President Salih has skilfully played off Islah against the Socialists at opposite ends of the political spectrum, and bringing Islah in from the cold would help him to maintain this balance - and might also improve the strained relations with Saudi Arabia.

This process is not without its critics inside Yemen, particularly among the tiny western-educated middle class, who compare it unfavourably with American and European elections. On the other hand, the ferociously competitive nature of the American elections last year surprised and even shocked many Yemenis who watched them live for the first time on CNN. But generally there is little appetite for a fiercely-fought contest which might result in an Algerian-style election debacle; and with the time when Yemen was two states still fresh in people's minds, national unity has a high value.

The danger in this is that coalition can lead to mediocre government: ministerial appointments based on the need for political balance rather than talent. "What our country really needs," one Yemeni businessman said, "is government by technocrats."

The other important question is what will happen to the opposition. While electoral pacts or private understandings will probably help some of the smaller parties to gain a foothold in parliament, as a political force they will be fragmented. Thus, according to the more gloomy predictions, while the trappings of democracy may remain, the prospects for effective opposition could simply wither away.

Against that, however, is the hope that almost three years of openness and freedom - of a kind never seen before in Yemen - may have begun an irreversible change in attitudes. Parliamentary debates are televised live, attracting huge audiences - and many of the speakers show little deference to those in power. Meanwhile, dozens of new newspapers and magazines have sprung up, offering a diversity of opinion and debate unparalleled anywhere in the Middle East. As one western observer put it: "People have lost their fear of government". In the end, that may offer the best hope for Yemeni democracy.