Showcasing democracy

Showcasing democracy

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,2 July, 1999

YEMEN has begun the window-dressing for its first direct presidential election. With polling just three months away - on September 28 - no serious candidates have yet emerged from the shadows, though a 12-year-old boy recently put his name forward.

President Ali Abdullah Salih is expected to be nominated by his party, the General People's Congress, later this month [JULY]. Because of a quirk in the electoral rules and its overwhelming majority in parliament, the president's party may also have to nominate a second candidate to oppose him.

Although the main parliamentary opposition party, Islah, has hinted that it will not contest the election, there are suggestions that the Socialist Party and various opposition groups may bury their differences to field a joint candidate. In a heated meeting organised by the Socialists, two names were reportedly discussed: Yassin Nu'man (former parliamentary Speaker) and Faraj bin Ghanim (a former prime minister).

Nominations open on July 8 and campaigning starts on August 2. The chosen date for the election is only four days before the president's current term expires - less than the seven days required by the constitution - and allows no time for a run-off in the unlikely event that Salih fails to secure an overall majority.

As MEI went to press, Sana'a was hosting the Emerging Democracies Forum, a three-day international conference organised by the US-based National democratic Institute and billed as an opportunity "for nascent and promising democracies to share experiences, achievements, best practices as well as common hurdles of democratic transition".

The Yemeni government clearly regards the conference as a means to showcase the country's democratic achievements so far, as a prelude to the presidential election. Some opposition elements have been less kind, decrying it as an empty propaganda stunt. But the published agenda did indicate a "warts and all" debate and it is worth noting that only two Arab countries - Yemen and Morocco - were either sufficiently interested or sufficiently democratic to attend.

However, two events have overshadowed the conference. One was Hillary Clinton's last-minute decision to cancel her visit because of problems on the Israeli leg of a scheduled Middle East tour.

The other was the death of Dr Abd al-Aziz al-Saqqaf, publisher of the Yemen Times, after being hit by a car in Sana'a on June 2. Dr Saqqaf, who was 47, had been a key figure in bringing the conference to Yemen and was killed by a teenager driving a Mercedes as he left a lunchtime planning meeting. In just eight years, Dr Saqqaf, an economics lecturer, had built the English-language newspaper into one of the most influential independent voices in Yemen.

Meanwhile, Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar, leader of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, urged his supporters not to attack the democracy conference. Abu al-Hassan, who is under sentence of death for kidnapping 16 western tourists last December, called a halt to "military operations" until the outcome of his appeal is known. On the same day, however, a bomb exploded in a shop in Aden, killing two people and injuring 14. It is not known who carried out the attack.