Salih wins again

YEMENIS went to the polls on April 27 to elect their third parliament since the multi-party system was introduced in 1990.

A total of 1,396 candidates from 22 parties, plus independents, were contesting 301 parliamentary seats. This time, 11 female candidates were standing and the proportion of women registered to vote - about 40% of the total - was among the highest in the Middle East.

As on previous occasions, the elections were marred by allegations of vote-rigging and some violence. Although results in some constituencies were still to be declared as MEI went to press, it was clear that President Ali Abdullah Salih's General People's Congress had increased its already huge majority, winning 210 seats or more. The Islah party had at least 40, the Socialists 12 and others 13.

According to the Supreme Commission for Elections, 14 people were slightly injured in "petty" exchanges of gunfire between supporters of rival candidates on polling day but it was later reported that three had died of their wounds.

Even so, the violence was less than in the municipal elections of 2001 when 29 people were killed, or the 1997 parliamentary elections when at least 11 died.

In Ta'izz province, angry voters set fire to boxes at two polling stations following complaints of attempted fraud.

Elsewhere, security forces removed several ballot boxes from one polling station, according to the opposition Islah party. In al-Jawf province, the election committee said another box was snatched but returned after two hours.

The Yemen Times published a photograph of children aged between seven and 15 who formed a long queue to vote at a polling station in Amran province. The paper said they had been given registration cards and instructed by their teachers to vote for the ruling GPC.

Despite these reported irregularities, the Yemen Times suggested the latest elections were generally better-conducted than in the past, with more transparency and more awareness among voters.

There were also signs of a maturing approach by the opposition parties. The Socialist party, which boycotted the 1997 elections, fielded 109 candidates this time and reached an agreement with the Islah party and others in more than 100 constituencies to avoid splitting the anti-government vote.

The plethora of opposition candidates competing against each, together with the first-past-the post voting system, helped the GPC to win many seats in the past.

Speaking on the eve of the elections, President Salih said: "The fall of the Iraqi regime should be a lesson for all Arab rulers. Today, we have to adopt democracy as a choice for ruling. It is an important lesson."

Some have accused the ruling party of using public funds for its campaign, though the president denied it.

"We want all political powers to be represented under the parliament's dome," he said after casting his vote. "We want all the parties to have a chance, and we don't want a 99.9% majority."

Meanwhile, the government has placed advertisements in Yemeni newspapers offering a reward of one million riyals ($8,300) for information leading to the recapture of 10 al-Qaeda suspects who escaped from jail in Aden on April 11.

The men, accused of the attack on USS Cole which killed 17 American sailors in October 2000, allegedly drilled through a wall in the prison. According to Yemeni officials, 25 people have been detained in connection with the breakout, including a taxi driver who drove the fugitives to a bus station.

The escaped suspects had been held beyond the legal time limit for detention without trial, apparently at the request of the United States.