Yemeni electoral and party systems

by Ahmed Abdul-Kareem Saif

Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Politics, University of Exeter, England.

This article was first published in AL-MASAR Journal, Volume 1, Number 1 (winter) 2000, pp. 15-32.


SINCE the establishment of the unification in May 22, 1990, democratic process has functioned in an unstable political environment. The political arena has been characterised by a struggle for power swinging from co-operation to a large-scale war. In a democratic country, probably no political institution shapes the political landscape more than its electoral system and its political parties. Democracy in Yemen, however, has been affected by many factors, among them the party and electoral system. This paper, therefore, examines these two variables and shows their impact on the parliament in particular and democracy in general.

1. Electoral System

General Election Law No. 27/1996 has adopted the first-past-the-post (FPP) system with single-member constituencies [1]. All election affairs are organised technically by the Supreme Election Committee (SEC), a body charged with the task of preparing for and conducting all elections. This system formula states that the candidate who obtains the most votes wins and all votes for the other candidates are effectively wasted [2]. The 1993 and 1997 parliamentary elections showed that the FPP system favours the largest parties.

Supporters of this electoral system contend it suits Yemen's circumstances. With the high rate of illiteracy, voters can recognise and choose their candidates on a personal basis. This also provides transparent, easy, and straightforward elections. Moreover, this gives room for independents to be represented in the Parliament [3]. Findings suggest that 69.8 per cent of the MPs support the existing electoral system, which brought them in.

Opponents contend that such a system in a traditional society like Yemen's would increase the importance of kinship preferences, which would deepen the sub-national identity at the expense of party electoral programmes. This downgrading the level of Parliament's professionalism. This system also disfavours small parties, depriving them of representation in Parliament. Opponents instead call for proportional representation (PR), claiming that it minimises personal and financial influences, allows political parties to form coalitions, gives priority to programmes, and enables parties to choose the most qualified, not the most socially influential, candidates [4].

With regard to representation, however, the existing FPP system shows shortcomings. For example, in the 1997 election, at the constituency level, 116 MPs won with less than half (some as few as 23 per cent) of all votes in their constituencies. At the national level, as (Table 1) shows, when adding up all the constituencies' results to get an overall state of the Parliament, all MPs got 55 per cent of all votes cast and 33.7 per cent of all registered eligible voters.

  

Table 1: Impact of the FPP on representation

Elections of

Voters Registered

Voters Cast

%

Total Votes

%

1993

2,682,457

2,271,126

84.7

NA*

NA*

1997

4,606,932

2,824,752

61.3

1,554,725

55

* NA: Data not available.

  

To highlight the state of the parties in the Parliament after the 1997 election, it has been found that regarding the ratio of seats to votes, the GPC (General Peoples's Congress) got 63.54 per cent of seats based on achieving 43.14 per cent of total votes. By comparison, the Islah party got 17.73 per cent of seats and 23.38 per cent of votes [5]. It is obvious the FPP system enables large parties to win every seat with a simple majority, leaving the minority totally underrepresented. In this sense, elections could be free but not fair. Based upon a simple majority, a candidate could win by a slight edge, as little as 23 per cent of the vote in a constituency.6 Having gained a landslide victory, the GPC seeks no change in the electoral system. The only hope left for small parties lies in a concentration of support in certain regions rather than distribution across the country.

The FPP system produces a majority government. In both elections held in Yemen small parties won 12 and 5 seats in the 1993 and 1997 elections, respectively. However, in a nascent democracy such as Yemen's, this system probably provides a stable majoritarian government that allows for a certain co-operation between the Parliament and the government. In the short run this is possibly desirable to allow democratic institutions to consolidate and institutionalise further.

2. Party System

After the unification in 1990 Yemen had over forty political parties, later decreasing to fifteen in order to meet the requirements of Law No. 66/1991 governing organisation and political parties. Among the fifteen parties, nine pre-date the existence of the Parliament.

The prominent feature is the fluid state of most of these parties. The parties weaken by the traditional context, fragmented social structure, paternalism, and personification of politics that affected parties' organisation and cohesion. In the historical evolution of the parties, severe repression pushed them underground, which has also contributed to weakening intra-party democracy and to the absence of a rational mechanism for decision-making.

Yet, Unlike most Western political parties, most large parties in Yemen did not originate in legislative bodies. They had their roots in local organisations or in the nationalist movement. So these parties, mainly the GPC and the YSP (Yemeni Socialist Party), emerged as single dominant ones benefiting from their links with the founding of the state. Thus, they have retained a known electorate cemented by using state patronage to reinforce their strength. During the interim period both the GPC and the YSP used their control of the state to reward their supporters with jobs and money. After the 1994 war, the GPC continues benefiting from this advantage. By comparison, most of the newly created parties had to start from scratch and appeal to a floating electorate [7], resulting in marginalization of the small parties, as shown in (Table 2).

 

Table 2: Parliamentary Seats by Party

 

Parliamentary Election (1993)

Parliamentary Election (1997)

Party

Cand.

Votes

%

Seats

%

Cand.

Votes

%

Seats

%

GPC

275

640,523

29

123

40.9

233

1,175,343

43.2

187

62.1

IND.

1945

606,201

27.2

47

15.6

1399

805,636

29.6

56

18.6

YSP

210

413,984

18.9

56

18.7

B

B

B

B

B

Islah

189

382,545

17.4

63

20.9

188

637,738

23.4

53

17.6

ANB

156

80,362

3.7

7

2.3

46

9,439

o.35

0

0

ASB

NE

NE

NE

NE

NE

25

20,409

0.75

2

0.7

Haqq

63

18,659

0.85

2

0.7

26

5,587

0.2

0

0

CN

25

6,191

0.28

1

0.33

15

2,755

0.1

0

0

DN

17

4,576

0.2

1

0.33

30

9,601

0.3

0

0

PUNO

89

52,303

2.37

1

0.33

80

55,438

2.1

3

1

Total

2,970

2,205,344

100

301

100

2,042

2,721,946

100

301

100

Keywords: B (boycotted); Candid. (Candidates); NE (did not exist then); IND (independents); ANB (Arab National Ba'ath); ASB (Arab Socialist Ba'ath); CN (Corrective Nasserite Party); and DN (Democratic Nasserite Party).

  

Table 2 suggests a highly volatile party system that reflects the fact that voters changed their preferences between two consecutive elections. This elaborates levels of loyalty to party, people's awareness of the political process, party organisation, and degree of democracy consolidation. Electoral volatility is measured by half the sum of the absolute percentage difference between the votes received by each party in two consecutive elections.8

Therefore, the formula of electoral volatility in Yemen is:

( [62.1-40.9] + [18.6-15.6] + [18.7-0.00] + [20.9-17.6] + [2.3-0.00] + [0.7-0.00] + [0.7-0.00] + [0.33-0.00] + [0.33-0.00] + [1-0.33] ) / 2 = 51.23/2 = 25.61%

Historical evidence shows a negative relationship between democratic consolidation and electoral volatility. In West European elections between 1885 and 1985 average volatility was 8.6 per cent [9]. The lower it is, the more likely that the electoral arena is well established. The high volatility of the Yemeni party system demonstrates a fractionalised party system. The volatility value increased slightly under the effect of the YSP's boycotting the last election; nonetheless it remains high.

With regard to party organisation, this explains the relationship between the parliamentary party and the party organisation. So far, only eight parties have been represented in the last two parliaments. Five parties are leftist (the three Nasserite parties, the Ba'ath, and the YSP), two are Islamist (al-Haqq and the Islah), and from the right is the GPC. Apart from the three biggest parties (GPC, YSP, and Islah), other parties have been, in all, represented by only seventeen MPs in the last two Parliaments. The MPs of the small parties are very disciplined and show strong commitment to their parties' policies. Their small number means that their parties and the media put extra pressure on them to be genuine representatives for their parties. Thus, those MPs' behaviour does not reflect systematically the organisation of their parties.

On the other hand, the three big parties show different trends. The MPs representing these parties viewed intra-party discipline as follows: 53 per cent of the GPC call for much higher levels of discipline; 56 per cent of the YSP call for much less; and 60 per cent of the Islah express their satisfaction with the present level of discipline. In all parties, the majority of MPs said there are no sanctions available to their parties against them in case of deviation from party polices, and at most they receive blame [10].

The fluid structure of the GPC is explained by the fact that it has no definite ideology. It was founded as a political umbrella that consists of different political trends and factions. After unity it continues with the purpose not to represent but to govern. In this sense the GPC is a catchall party and as a ruling party it controls the state-owned media, through which it communicates with its electorate. Another factor contributing to the low level of its discipline is the background of its MPs. They are mainly from amongst the long-standing politicians and powerful tribal leaders. Many social figures were recruited to the GPC after they won their seats as independents. Members of the GPC, therefore, ask what their party can do for them, not what they can do for their party. Usually, state financial aid distributed by the GPC goes to the party bureaucracy, not to the party in Parliament. Because of this the GPC's MPs evacuated the floor in November 1, 1998, protesting the GPC President's decision to provide ministers but not MPs with new cars. The loose organisation of the GPC dictates its MPs' actions, which are characterised by individual preferences and discretion. As a GPC MP points out, the GPC's government does not consult its MPs on policies, so the MPs are not obligated to support them in Parliament [11]. However, the position of the President as head of the GPC limits the MPs from going far. On vital issues, the President makes personal contacts with the MPs to ensure their consistency [12].

In contrast, the YSP comes at the other end of the spectrum. Attitudes of its MPs tend toward lessening the strict internal discipline. As a mass party ruled South Yemen centrally for about three decades, it is accustomed to the top-down commands. Patterns of recruitment also enhanced this tendency whereby strong loyalty to the party outweighs other issues. It mainly depends on peasants, workers, and other deprived strata of society. Given the fact that all syndicates were controlled by the single then party existing, promotion was in accordance with loyalty to the party and to factions within it. After unity, YSP members have adhered more to their party as they perceive it to be the only guarantor of their political future in a more diverse and complicated arena than was the South. Moreover, the close link between the GPC and the Islamic-oriented Islah party makes the YSP more vulnerable. Therefore, after the 1993 elections the MPs of the YSP showed strong commitment to their party in order to counterbalance the majority bloc of rivals. It was a struggle for the MPs of the YSP to maintain their privileges as a former ruling party and a partner in the new state that required a highly disciplined cadre.

The Islah party falls at the mid-point between the GPC and the YSP. As a newly emerged party it benefited to a great extent from the struggle between the other two parties. Though it overtly sided with the GPC for social, political and ideological reasons, this was not politically free. The Islah represented tribal and Islamic interests, so its MPs come mainly from these two factions. The tribal MPs behaved as those in the GPC and mainly for the same reasons, whereas the Islamist MPs behaved similarly to those of the YSP for the same motives. This explains the reasonable level of discipline within the party. The relationship between the party and its MPs is characterised by individual discretion on the general issues and by commitment to the party's policies on the clear Islamic issues.

Variation in the relationships between parties and their MPs supposes different procedures for agenda-setting. In the light of the aforementioned relationships, it is logical to find different degrees of participation for MPs in agenda-setting in accordance with their responses to their parties' policies. Findings show that 61.8 per cent of MPs say the politburo and party leaders have the most say in party policy and 20 per cent refer that to party convention. This emphasises Michels' "iron law of oligarchy", which states that an organisation is dominated by its leadership [13].

In the same vein, though from a different perspective, Von Beyme believes the balance of power between the central party organisation and the parliamentary party has shifted to the disadvantage of the latter [14]. Empirical studies, however, do not support Michels' and Von Beyme's positions that all parties would develop dominance by extra-parliamentary parties. There is still substantial scope for other possibilities [15]. Other research concludes:

'Doctrinaire parties experienced high degree of centralisation and involvement with low levels of complexity and factionalism in their organisation and fared poorly at the polls while maintaining strong cohesion in the legislature and engaging in many activities. On the other hand, parties that we call 'mobilising' tend to do well in elections, while engaging in several non-campaign activities although showing little legislative cohesion. Organisationally, mobilising parties tend to be highly complex but not very centralised, and they have little factionalism and low levels of membership involvement' [16].

Different MPs' behaviour, then, goes beyond party leadership domination and points to the effect of other factors. Al-Saqqaf argues that the main factor influencing MPs in Yemen is the media [17]. Despite that, 66.4 per cent of the MPs said the media are not important. The media, however, probably influence MPs indirectly through influencing parties' election manifestos. Yet, two other factors are still important in relations between MPs and their parties. The first is the MPs' personal experiences and attitudes. The second is the type of the issues raised: the more the issues are clear and have a direct effect on people, the more MPs are responsive regardless of their parties' points of view.

Nomination is certainly not the exclusive preserve of the party at the centre. There are no rules or law in Yemen establishing criteria for nomination. Apart from the YSP, all parties seek nominees who have the best chance of carrying their constituencies. The YSP boycotted the 1997 election, making it difficult to observe changes in its selection, as happened with the other left-to-centre parties, which modified their criteria for nomination from loyalty and ideology to the ability of a nominee to win a constituency. In general, because of the traditional society based on kinship networks, only 57.7 per cent of the MPs said they are representing a political party. Therefore, nomination to a great extent is based on social and personal characteristics.

Linked to this is the incumbency rate, which was 21 per cent in the 1993 Parliament and 42 per cent in the 1997 Parliament. The latter had a higher rate for two reasons. First, most of the MPs elected to the 1993 Parliament were new because the MPs of the 1990 Parliament were appointed and among them only 12.9 per cent had been re-elected. The second factor is the absence of the YSP in 1997 because it boycotted the election, providing a space for others for re-election. Overall, among the incumbents 42.3 per cent belonged to the GPC, 25.4 per cent to the YSP, 15.2 per cent to the Islah, 13.5 per cent were Independents, and 1.8 per cent for each were from the Ba'ath and Nasserite parties.

For those who were denied re-nomination, it never happened because of their stand on a policy question. A considerable number of nominees are chosen at local level because of their status, which makes parties endorse their nomination. Many MPs also competed as independents and later different parties competed to affiliate them. The GPC is the most successful in recruiting independent MPs because of the privileges it provides as a ruling party. Weak control over nomination deprives parties of a powerful instrument for imposing ideology and policy conformity on MPs.

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