Three-party coalition

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International, 11 June 1993

THE COALITION is dead, long live the coalition. A month of post-election haggling in Yemen has replaced the old, fractious, two-party government with a new one comprising three parties.

Together, President Salih's General People's Congress, the Socialists and the Islamic-traditionalist Islah party command about 240 of the 301 seats in parliament -more than enough to get legislation through in the face of a fragmented opposition. Indeed, with 122 seats of its own, the GPC could have formed a working majority with only one other partner, though it chose not to do so.

The aim, declared even before the election, was to form the most broadly-based government possible, with the maximum of popular support. This stems largely from the belief that Yemen's problems are so daunting that no single party is capable of tackling alone. Also, with the old north-south division still only three years in the past, national unity is paramount.

Thus the new 29-member government announced on May 30 represents an attempt to balance disparate forces. Haydar Abu Bakr al-Attas, a Socialist, continues as prime minister - though in numerical terms the GPC clearly has the upper hand with 15 posts, against the Socialists' nine and Islah's four. There is also a single Ba'athist who will reportedly serve in a personal capacity while his party remains in opposition.

However, it is by no means certain that all the new ministers will actually be sworn-in: several have complained they were not consulted before the announcement. And Islah is aggrieved at getting only four minor posts when it won almost a quarter of the popular vote. It particularly wanted the justice and education portfolios which would have offered the chance to pursue more strictly Islamic policies.

These latest arguments highlight the dangers inherent in such a broad coalition. The addition of a third element undoubtedly increases the potential for friction and political paralysis of the kind that dogged the previous administration.

The 900-word coalition pact signed at the end of May anticipates some of these difficulties and, by stressing collective responsibility, attempts to bolt dissenters into place. It emphasises that every minister must act in the "supreme national interest" and should not "impose upon the administrative body under his control any of his party or political views".

Disagreements will be allowed in private, though in public everyone must maintain a show of unity: coalition parties must not adopt positions that are contrary to agreed policies, and while dissenting ministers have a right to record their objections they must nevertheless abide by the approved information policy.

The agreement also provides a conciliation process for any party thinking of leaving the coalition. Besides that, no party can leave the coalition during the first 12 months of the new government or during the six months before a general election.

If the agreement is to work, Islah and the Socialists will probably have to toe the GPC line most of the time. However, both have strong bargaining counters. The GPC needs Islah to help improve relations with Yemen's important neighbour, Saudi Arabia. And the Socialists, despite their reduced numbers in parliament, still have a huge power base in the former South Yemen; to ignore them is to risk reopening the old geographical divide.