by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East International, 26 January, 2001
A GROUP of opposition parties in Yemen have buried their differences to contest local elections and resist constitutional changes.
The move is seen by some as the most promising development for several years in a political system dominated by President Ali Abdullah Salih’s party, the General People’s Congress, and the official opposition party, Islah, which often collaborates with it.
Hitherto, other opposition parties have had a tendency to boycott elections or to split the anti-government vote by standing against each other.
The alliance, which includes the Socialist Party under the umbrella of the Opposition Coordination Council, attempted to field a candidate in the 1999 presidential election but was prevented by the electoral rules from doing so.
This time the parties are hopeful of winning some seats in the poll on February 20, especially in southern and central Yemen – though their expectations are not high.
They are also urging a "no" vote in the simultaneous referendum on amendments to the constitution which will increase the term of parliament from four years to six, and of the president from five years to seven.
Both the GPC and Islah are supporting the amendments, with strong backing from the official Yemeni media. A number of people who stuck up "vote no" posters in Aden are reported to have been arrested.
The result of the referendum is a foregone conclusion but, in the unlikely event of the amendments being rejected, parliamentary elections – for which the bureaucracy is totally unprepared - would be due this April.
To ensure success, President Salih has been touring the country inaugurating new projects. He has also presented 240 ploughs to farmers.
The opposition parties, meanwhile, are campaigning with minimal funds, some of which – in the case of the Socialist Party – have been frozen by the authorities.
As usual, there are complaints about the electoral registers, despite the correction of 190,000 names on the lists. In some areas, opposition figures claim, the number of registered voters exceeds the total population.
In what may security sources said was an election-related incident, several people were shot dead on January 10 while praying at a village mosque near Amran.
Despite claims that the shooting was sparked by an argument over the choice of candidates, villagers interviewed by the Yemen Times denied any political connection. There is also a dispute about the number of dead, variously reported to be between four and nine, including the Iman of the mosque.
On January 17 a German oil expert became the first foreigner to be kidnapped in Yemen this year. Luther Fielenberg, 53, had arrived in the country a week earlier to work for the German firm, Preussag Energie.
He was released two days after his abduction in Shabwa by the Kurab tribe, who were reportedly demanding that Preussage employ 50 tribesmen.
Last year, eight foreigners were kidnapped in six separate incidents. Although one hostage died, this was easily the lowest hostage total for at least five years. Twenty-seven foreigners were kidnapped in 1999, 42 in 1998, 50 in 1997 and 23 in 1996.
The decline is probably due more to a lack of opportunities than a lack of inclination among kidnappers: there are fewer foreigners in the country, they are more aware of the risks, and tourists are restricted to areas considered safe.
Complaining that there were no suitable foreigners available, the Bani Dhabyan tribe abducted the 32-year-old son of the mayor of Sana’a on January 10. He was still being held as MEI went to press.
The Bani Dhabyan – no strangers to the kidnap scene – are seeking the release of six tribesmen charged, among other things, with kidnapping a Dutchman in 1997 and four Germans in 1999.