Yemen's 1993 elections

IRI pre-election assessment, January 1993

by the International Republican Institute

Executive summary 

1. Introduction

2. The Unification Process and 1993 Elections

3. Political Parties

4. Political Analysis of the Election Process

5. Synopsis of the Electoral Law and Electoral Administration

6. Conclusions for 1993 National Elections

7. Conclusions for Democratic Development in Yemen

Executive summary

THIS REPORT is intended as a brief account of the political dynamics present in the Republic of Yemen in the run-up to April 27, 1993 national legislative elections which will end the formal process of unification of the former Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Yemen's unique historical, cultural, geopolitical, and social aspects combine to create a distinctive and highly-charged political environment which is undergoing dramatic changes in its move toward an open, competitive electoral process. With unprecedented and surprising speed, the two Yemens have rejected their individual forms of authoritarian rule in favor of creating a government based on democratic principles. The challenges of such radical political transformations are compounded and made inestimably more complex by the concurrent process of unifying two drastically dissimilar countries.

The movement for unification, which has existed in various forms since 1967 and before, is the driving force for recent democratic liberalization in Yemen and thus is inextricably linked with the course and fate of democratization in Yemen. Collaterally, the political factors which created the conditions for unification have become the primary elements of Yemen's emerging political process. In the North (the former YAR), the complex relationships among the central political authorities, the traditional tribal authorities, and the religious authorities have been translated into core political factors in creating, defining, and guiding competitive political institutions. In the South (the former PDRY), the pressures caused by its economic transformation from a centrally-planned communist system to a free market-oriented system, the sensitive position of the military in the post-authoritarian system, as well as the reemergence of relatively latent tribal and religious political authority have had a profound effect on its political dynamics.

Predictably, liberalization in Yemen brought with it an explosion in the number of political parties. There are more than 40 registered parties; however an accurate number is difficult to establish because parties form, change names, merge, and dissolve on a weekly basis. In reality, only about 12 have the coherence to be considered viable and most observers narrow the number of competitive parties to between three and six. By consensus, the three most important of the parties are the General People's Congress (GPC), the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP), and the Islah. The GPC and YSP are the former ruling parties of the North and South respectively, while the Islah is the largest Islamicist party. Grassroots support is difficult to gauge at this point because it is wholly based on individual popularity and localized support based on tribal or local religious affiliations. In general terms, the GPC is virtually devoid of centralized organization and ideological focus, but maintains a high level of support in the North because its members are the traditional local leaders including the tribal sheiks and the network of mayors and administrators. The YSP is highly organized due to its development as a Soviet-styled communist party, yet it has lost a great deal of its power and active membership since losing its monopoly on power in the South and its grassroots popularity is considered tenuous at best. The Islah has built a formidable political base through its well-organized network of clerics, schools, and mosques which was built and operated as a quasi-political organization long before the recent political liberalization. Because a great deal of the GPC and Islah constituencies overlap in tribal areas, it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate them or determine relative support in many rural areas. The remainder of the parties are divided between those with ideological or historical roots (Nasserite parties, Baathist parties, other Islamic parties, and independence-era parties) and the purely personality-based parties. None of these parties can generate widespread popular support, but many are able to garner considerable support in their base constituencies.

The political dynamic at work in Yemen has several different levels as indicated by the complexity of the political landscape and the dual purpose of the upcoming election itself. The overriding importance of the election is not in its role in the democratic process, but in its role in the unification process. There is a distinct tension between these roles in that the most important concern in the unification process is the need for stability in the delicate transition to a fully unified country. The chaos, competition, and instability inherent in the democratic process is perceived as a potentially mortal threat to the unification process. Because the electoral process is intrinsic to the unification and thus cannot be avoided, there is a general inclination to temper or negate the destabilizing effect of the election by predetermining the outcome through careful negotiation or complex coalition-building. The other alternative is to minimize or diminish the importance of the election itself by predetermining the government (executive) structure regardless of the eventual composition of the legislature. The danger to the integrity of the electoral process and to Yemen's democratic development is readily apparent in both of these options.

In this context, the technical aspects of the electoral process, the campaign, and the voting itself can be viewed almost as inconsequential. The a priori judgement must be made as to what degree the overall political context affects the viability or legitimacy of the democratic electoral process. Within this context, the current electoral campaign can be seen most importantly as an initial step, albeit limited, in the development of a democratic process through the establishment of coherent political institutions and the education or growth of civil society.

The intent of this report will be to provide information regarding the current status of the electoral process in Yemen and to outline the micro- and macro-political context of the upcoming election. It should be noted that the information on which this report is based was collected in November 1992, six months prior to the currently scheduled April 27, 1993 election date. This report should be considered a background briefing regarding the electoral context as opposed to an authoritative pre-election assessment. A significant amount of text has been omitted to allow for political developments and to avoid confusion due to the postponement of the election. Additional reports will be published both prior to and following the 1993 national elections in order to provide a more timely and accurate assessment of the campaign and electoral process which is developing in Yemen.