Salih's hollow poll win

Salih's hollow poll win

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,1 October, 1999

HAVING WON 96.3% of the total votes in Yemen's first direct presidential election, President Ali Abdullah Salih hailed the result as "a great democratic victory". He was immediately congratulated by Prince Sultan of Saudi Arabia and the Emir of Kuwait.

The president's achievement might have appeared more convincing had his only opponent in the presidential election not been a political nonentity and a member of the Salih's own party.

Although many Yemenis regard the holding of a presidential election as a significant step in itself, the lack of a real choice between candidates has probably harmed Yemen's reputation as the most democratised country in the Arabian Peninsula. A more open contest would have helped to consolidate democracy, while still allowing Salih to win by a huge margin.

Most of the extra-parliamentary opposition parties had called a boycott of the election after the uncharismatic leader of the Socialist party was debarred from standing by a quirk of the nomination system. However, official figures showed little evidence of a boycott. Turnout - at 66% of those registered to vote - was surprisingly high, given the predictable outcome: 5% higher than in the 1997 parliamentary election (which the Socialists also boycotted).

This contrasted with new agency reports of a low poll in some areas, and allegations of multiple voting. But even allowing for some abuse in the registration and voting processes, the result suggests that - despite security problems and some unpopular economic decisions - the president is still able to rally vast numbers of people to his support when the need arises.

Somewhat eclipsed by the election, the saga of the Britons jailed on terrorism charges took another surprising turn when appeals by both defence and prosecution were rejected on the grounds that they were out of time.

Lawyers had been discussing a deal under which the men would drop their appeals in return for a promise of release by the end of the year. Negotiations broke down, according to one British observer, because the men were "too dim" to recognise this as a good solution. The defendants seem concerned that abandoning their appeal would imply an admission of guilt.

Nevertheless, the three who were sentenced to time already served have been released from jail and, as MEI went to press, were expected to return to Britain. The remainder have 40 days in which to make another appeal.

Meanwhile, the fate of Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar, leader of the Islamic Army, who has been linked to the Britons, remains uncertain. In August he lost his appeal against a death sentence for kidnapping 16 western tourists and killing four of them.

In a veiled reference to the case, Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, who is parliamentary Speaker and the most senior tribal figure in Yemen, warned that the government will face a no-confidence vote in parliament if it does not crack down on kidnappers. This has been interpreted as a call for Abu al-Hassan's prompt execution.

The precise motive behind the sheikh's remarks is unclear - though possibly it is connected with religious rivalry between the Islah party (which the sheikh heads) and the more radical Salafi elements which Abu al-Hassan represents.