Originally published in The Guardian, 26 April 1997
Yemen goes to the polls tomorrow. Brian Whitaker drops in on the worryingly familiar campaign trail
PICTURE the scene. Amid disquiet about the state of British democracy, international observers fly in to monitor the election. The teams from Japan, Russia and Denmark have heard rumours about less than legitimate party funding, fiddles with candidates' expenses and abuse of proxy votes, among other things. John Major and Tony Blair both take time off from campaigning to insist our elections are free and fair, while Paddy Ashdown takes the opposite tack and lectures the observers on proportional representation.
The Japanese team, armed with laptops and spreadsheets, move on to Conservative Central Office where they ask to inspect the accounts. After a lively exchange of views with Brian Mawhinney, they leave empty-handed. The Russians are astonished by the lack of identity checks at polling stations.
Now shift the scene a few thousand miles to the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, where Yemen goes to the polls tomorrow, four days before we do. The observers here - Americans, Europeans and Arabs - have been arriving for days.
Yemen welcomes them as if its very future depends on them, which, in a sense, it does. Once upon a time General Pica of San Seriffe could get himself re-elected with a 99 per cent majority and cheerfully wave two fingers at international opinion. But today, countries which hope to attract aid and foreign investment are expected not only to democratise but to prove that it's genuine.
Regardless of who wins the contest tomorrow, probably hundreds of millions of dollars hang on the verdict of the international observers.
The result is that political leaders in emerging democracies face two conflicting pressures at election time. For economic reasons, if nothing else, they want the process to be perceived as democratic; at the same time they want to be sure of staying in power.
A few leaders in the past, noting the observers' difficulty in coping with an unfamiliar language and country, have decided to take a chance and paid the price. Observers are not easily fooled.
There is also the question of what standards to apply when judging an election. 'You have to ask: what is perfection, what is realistic, one experienced observer said. No election is perfect.' In Yemen, with high illiteracy rates (84 per cent among rural Yemeni women) and countless remote mountain villages, holding an election places a huge burden on a civil service which functions only creakily. Faced with irregularities in a polling station for the first time, election officials may have no idea how to respond.
The most obvious areas for cheating are in the registration of voters and polling itself. One monitoring organisation in Yemen claims to have found 176,000 irregularities in the registers. If some of the people listed succeed in voting on Sunday, it will be conclusive proof of life after death.
There are also reports, denied by the government, of military voters registering in constituencies where the government needs extra support. This is a Yemeni adaptation of the celebrated Westminster gambit, where the Tory council re-housed homeless families in Labour wards.
However, the number of irregularities in Yemen is a tiny fraction of the total 4.6 million electorate; the fraudulent votes would have to be very precisely targeted to make much difference. In Yemen, on paper, it would also be difficult to apply the old injunction: vote early, vote often. All electors have a registration card with their photograph. There are separate polling stations for women where veils can be lifted to check their identity. After voting, thumbs are dipped in ink to prevent a return visit, though last time some ink found its way on to door handles and other objects that voters might touch on their way to the polls.
The line between smart electoral tactics and unfair practice is a fine one.
Why risk being caught cheating when there are more effective, legitimate, ways to manipulate the outcome? The most striking feature of Yemeni elections is the enormous number of candidates who are nominated - 3,851 this time for just 301 seats, and the number who subsequently withdraw - more than 1,500 so far. The negotiations which bring this about are intense and deeply mysterious.
In the space of just two elections, tactical withdrawal has developed into an art form by trading seats between parties. Party A agrees to give party B a relatively free run in one constituency where, if both stood, the party C might sneak in; party B returns the favour elsewhere. The two parties in the coalition government are, as they put it, 'co-ordinating' their efforts wherever possible.
The effect is to squeeze out smaller parties and restrict voters' choice, to loud tut-tutting from foreign observers. A disgraceful sharp practice, perhaps, but it's exactly what Labour and the Liberal Democrats did for Martin Bell in Tatton.
Numerous individuals have been quick to exploit the possibilities of the withdrawal system: they put themselves forward as independents in the hope that one of the wealthier parties will 'persuade' them to stand down. The going rate is 250,000 Yemeni Riyals (less than the price of one parliamentary question in Britain).
This time, however, another type of independent candidate has emerged, with entirely honourable motives. They don't even want to become members of parliament and will be perfectly happy if nobody votes for them. They are unofficial Yemeni election observers disguised as candidates and are using this tactic because the law entitles candidates to special privileges.
They are guaranteed free access to polling stations, they can accompany ballot boxes en route to the count, and they can scrutinise ballot papers. So if there's foul play, they should be the first to spot it.
Back in Britain, come May 2, the Japanese, Russian and Danish observers report that they have found 'certain irregularities', though on balance these are not sufficient to invalidate the election. They issue a list of recommendations for improving electoral procedures. Subject to corrective legislation, our supplies of CD players, vodka and bacon are secure for another five years. As for Yemen, we'll have to wait and see.