Salih and his shadow

Salih and his shadow

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in Middle East International, 30 July, 1999

WITH ONLY two runners and 29 non-starters, Yemen's presidential election, due in September, appears to be turning from a race into a gentle canter. The two contenders are the sitting president, Ali Abdullah Salih, and another member of the president's party who is standing as an independent.

By the time nominations closed, 31 names had been put forward. Several swiftly withdrew and three were disqualified by the vetting committee, leaving 24 names submitted for parliamentary approval.

Under the electoral rules, nominees needed support from 10% of MPs to qualify as a candidate. President Salih romped past the post with 182 votes (out of a possible 301) and Najib Qahtan al-Sha'abi, eldest son of the first president of south Yemen, also qualified with 39 votes.

Twenty nominees failed to secure a single vote, while Ali Salih 'Ubad Muqbil, the Socialist leader, who was supported by a number of opposition parties, won only seven.

The Socialists are complaining bitterly about their exclusion, though the problem arises mainly from their own decision to boycott the 1997 general election. Because that left them without any parliamentary seats they were unable to guaranteed the approval of a candidate in the presidential election. There had been suggestions that the president's General People's Congress would support their nominee in order to ensure a more open contest - but in the event no agreement was forthcoming.

The Yemeni constitution stipulates that presidential elections must be "competitive", and Jarallah 'Umer, head of the Socialist Party's political department, questioned whether an election featuring two members of the same party would be constitutional. "What is happening now is that we have one candidate competing with his shadow," he said.

The shenanigans of the selection process provide a sharp contrast to the declarations heard at the end of June when Yemen hosted an international conference on emerging democracies. However, they are unlikely to make much difference to the outcome of the election because no matter who stands against President Salih, he is almost certain to win.

Salih's chosen opponent, Mr Sha'abi, was born in 1952 and took a Masters degree in political and economic science at Cairo University. He has been a Member of Parliament since the unification of Yemen in 1992 and serves on the parliamentary committee for development and oil. He is married with three children.

In terms of policies, Mr Sha'abi has begun to present himself as a moderniser, saying that a campaign against Yemen's qat-chewing habit will be his top priority. He told a press conference: "If I win the election, I will combat all bad habits in our society including chewing qat and blood feuds." He also promised to work towards giving women full political and social rights.

In Aden, meanwhile, a verdict in the trial of eight Britons accused of plotting to cause explosions - which had been expected on July 25 - was postponed until August 9 without any official reason being given. There are rumours that the Yemeni authorities are waiting to see what action - if any - the British authorities take against the London-based cleric, Abu Hamza al-Masri, who is regarded in Sana'a as the instigator of the alleged bomb plot. British police arrested Abu Hamza under the Prevention of Terrorism Act last March but later released him on bail without charge.

Separately, on July 22 there was an explosion in the southern town of Zinjibar, near the courthouse where the kidnappers of 16 western tourists were tried earlier this year. In that case three of the accused were sentenced to death.