by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East International, 9 March, 2001
YEMEN'S local government elections on February 20 were marred by more than 100 violent incidents around the country. Although the precise death toll – along with most other things in these elections - is disputed, news agency reports indicate that at least 45 people died on election day or during the prolonged and turbulent counting of votes. In some areas tanks and forces of the elite Republican Guard were deployed.
In al-Baydah, a Nasserite candidate was killed in a counting centre as he was leading by 700 votes with the last ballot box being counted. In the same province, an independent candidate was shot dead.
In Ibb, an Islah party candidate was dragged away and killed after being declared the winner. Meanwhile an independent candidate opened fire with an automatic rifle after an argument with a candidate from the ruling General People’s Congress.
In Saadah, tribesmen fired on a helicopter carrying ballot boxes, and would not allow it to land, claiming the government had forced their candidates to withdraw.
The long-awaited elections were supposed to be the final stage in constructing a democratic framework which already includes an elected lower house of parliament, an appointed upper house and direct presidential elections.
In the light of complaints that the new local councils will have very little power, the ferocity of the contest for seats in them is, at first glance, surprising.
Many of the violent quarrels arose out of complaints of malpractice and most, but not all, involved rival supporters of the ruling GPC and the largest non-government party, Islah, which has both conservative and radical Islamist elements.
Islah accused the GPC of using state resources – the official media, the army and government funds – to bolster its campaign. The GPC, in turn, accused Islah of terrorism. Unlike the other opposition parties, Islah has an efficient grass-roots organisation and countered the official media by campaigning through the mosques.
In Marib, where it became clear during the count that Islah was winning, the army attempted to transfer remaining ballot boxes for counting inside their camp. According to the Yemen Times, tribesmen confronted the army with bazookas and 70 vehicles, bristling with armed Islah supporters, blocked the road. The result was a resounding victory for Islah, which won 86 council seats to the GPC’s 23.
Voting was prevented from taking place in 200 polling stations, either by violence or technical problems such as the non-arrival of ballot boxes. In some areas the wrong ballot papers arrived and in others the party symbols on ballot papers (used to help illiterate voters identify the candidates) were incorrect.
Some of this may be due to the fact that the Supreme Elections Committee, which is responsible for organisation, had been given only three months to prepare.
With 26,000 candidates competing for 7,000 seats, the organisational task was on a different scale from the last parliamentary election, where a mere 1,557 candidates contested 301 seats. The potential for quarrels between candidates and complaints of malpractice was also proportionally increased.
Final results are not known, and may not be for some time if threatened legal challenges come to fruition. Although an overall victory for the GPC is assumed, the Yemen Socialist Party – which boycotted the last parliamentary in 1997, is understood to have done well in two southern provinces, Abyan and Hadramaut, but badly in Aden, which was once its stronghold.
A referendum held on the same day is officially declared to have given 70% approval to consitutional changes which will extend the president’s term from five years to seven, and that of parliament from four years to six.
Commenting on the elections and referendum, the army newspaper, "26 September", described them as "an expression of a better future" and "a luminous spot on the road of national gains".
Others have been less complimentary. "It amazes any observer that despite more than 10 years' experience with democracy and political pluralism … we have not got any closer to really allowing the Yemeni people to decide freely and objectively what is right for the future of the country," an article in the Yemen Times said.
It is certainly clear that substantial numbers of people in Yemen are only content to let voting take its natural course so long as the outcome is in their favour. And, with weapons so readily available, aggrieved parties are in a position to give as good as they get.