Polling day violence

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in Middle East International, 2 May 1997

At least 11 people were killed in Yemen's election day violence on May 27. There was no systematic pattern to the trouble nor - in some cases - an obvious political motive. In part it was just an everyday tale life and death in a country where weapons abound.

In Abyan province a soldier shot dead eight people: two members of his family, three other soldiers, one policeman, one security man and one candidate's representative. It happened at 3.30 in the morning, for reasons which are still not clear.

In the southern Yafa'i territory, one person was injured in clashes apparently targetted at a polling station. In the north, two separate tribal clashes left two dead and elsewhere a man killed a member of his family. One person was injured by a grenade near a polling station in Ibb province.

In Dhamar province, voting was suspended for a time after an independent candidate opened fire, complaining that the campaign symbol used against his name on the ballot paper was wrong (he had changed it at the last minute). In the same province, two people were injured when a man tried to force his way into a polling station. Later, an electoral committee was held hostage and a road blocked to prevent ballot boxes being transported to the count.

All this distracted attention from a voting system which was far better prepared and organised than for Yemen's first multi-party elections in 1993. The process was closely watched by international monitors, candidates' representatives and - for the first time - thousands of trained Yemeni observers.

The irregularities reported were relatively minor, considering the formidable practical difficulties of holding elections in Yemen. There were many arguments over names on voters' registration cards which were not quite the same as those on the electoral registers. By nightfall, to placate the crowds still queueing, voting continued beyond the legal closing time in some areas without electric lighting.

Occasionally the mutual suspicion between candidates led to extravagant rumours. When one party handed out free pens to voters, stories spread that they were filled with "magic ink" which would disappear from the ballot papers after a few minutes.

Later, at least in the capital, Sana'a, counting appeared meticulous, with officials citing the law when problems arose. Counting was continuing as Middle East International went to press, but the two government parties, President Salih's General People's Congress (GPC) and Islah, both looked set to increase their parliamentary strength following a decision by the Yemen Socialist Party to boycott the election. Many observers predicted that the GPC would win more than half the 301 seats.

Moves by the coalition partners to squeeze out minor parties by co-ordinating their efforts were frustrated shortly before polling day when a number of candidates refused to stand down as instructed. This turned the final stages of the campaign into an unexpectedly vigorous contest.