Peek behind screen of Yemen's paranoid poll

Peek behind screen of Yemen's paranoid poll

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in The Guardian, 3 May 1997

Almost a week after its elections, Yemen is still waiting for a final result. Counting votes can be as frustrating as counting the hours.


In the corner of the room, behind a loose-fitting black curtain, is a small table. This is the polling booth where President Ali Abdullah Salih of Yemen is about to vote. The front-running candidate happens to be his son, Ahmad, just back from Sandhurst.

The room is tightly packed with officials, election observers and journalists. And, as the president goes behind the curtain, the crowd heaves.

Suddenly there's a gap between the curtain and the wall. Through it can be seen the president's ballot paper and a hovering pen.

By midday, news arrives that at least 11 people have been killed in various shooting incidents. With 3.2 guns per person in Yemen, that makes it a pretty normal day.

Everyone suspects everyone else of cheating. The most trivial incident can start a fantastic rumour. One party has been giving voters free pens. Within hours the whole country has heard they contain 'magic ink' which disappears a few minutes after using them to vote.

It's at the counting stage that distrust really comes to the fore. In a room full of suspicious minds, nobody gets away with anything.

At a school in the old part of Sana'a the chairman of the election committee passes the first ballot box around for inspection. Everyone - candidates, observers and officials - agrees it is sealed. The chairman opens the box and tips the ballot papers on to the floor. It goes round the room again. All agree it is empty.

The chairman takes the first ballot paper from the pile and announces 'Horse' (logo of the president's party, the General People's Congress). He waves it around for all to see. The voter has indeed chosen the horse. And so it goes on: horse, sun, horse, camel, horse - each held up to view.

Now an independent candidate objects. The tick against one voter's horse has strayed into the box of the candidate above. It goes into a separate pile.

When objections have been resolved, the votes are finally counted. The first box, with about 200 ballot papers, has taken one hour 20 minutes. There are 37 boxes to go.


Yemen's second-largest party, Islah, issues a list of electoral transgressions committed by others. But it refrains from denouncing the whole election; it wants to see how many seats it has won first.

In his mountain stronghold, the leader of Islah, Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, head of the Hashid Tribal Federation, holds a press conference setting out his terms for joining another coalition.

The president's party is confident of an overall majority but wants a coalition with Islah because that will help keep its militant Islamist wing under control. The prime minister is sure Islah will co-operate, and explains why.

Currently, Islah runs Islamic Institutes - ostensibly religious schools - which it uses for indoctrination and recruitment of party members. If Islah refuses to join the coalition, these will be brought under state control.

By now the rumour mill is at full power. Figures from the first ballot boxes leak out. People extrapolate results for whole constituencies - and from them, the result of the entire election.

At 6 pm, televised live, election officials announce they have nothing to announce. To howls of disbelief the spokesman insists there are no results yet - enough to convince many people the returns are being suppressed.

But the international election observers have heard it all before. 'As far as we know everyone's still counting,' one says. 'Either that or they've fallen asleep.'


The first real results show the GPC winning about two-thirds of the seats, with Islah faring badly. Islah now condemns the results as fraudulent.

Meanwhile the international observers report. The Washington-based National Democratic Institute describes the election as 'a positive step in the democratic development of Yemen'. Another group, which includes European Union observers, says the elections are, on balance, 'reasonably free and fair', but it notes a number of irregularities. Among other things, the secrecy of the ballot has been compromised in some areas by 'the absence of adequate screens' around booths. Indeed it has, Mr President.


The time limit of 72 hours for completing the count is long past; the death toll has reached 21 and results from 16 seats are still awaited.

In Britain, Tony Blair wins a similar majority. Nobody accuses him of cheating.