Presidential Elections in Yemen

The First Real Election Campaign

As elections approach in Yemen, the current president has little reason to fear defeat after almost three decades in power. Nevertheless, the elections could lead to more democracy in the country. By Klaus Heymach and Susanne Sporrer

President Ali Abdullah Saleh (photo: Mohammed al-Qadhi/IRIN)
At the last minute, Saleh finally submitted to "the will of the people" and allowed himself to be nominated as presidential candidate by his party, the National People's Congress

​​Three times this year Yemen has missed the chance to take a leading role in the democratisation of the Arabian peninsula. In June, President Ali Abdullah Saleh broke his promise not to stand again in the presidential election on 20th September after 28 years in office. Then in July, parliament failed to nominate a single one of the several female candidates for the presidency.

And finally in August, the parties nominated only a few dozen women among the 20,000 men standing in the local elections which will be taking place at the same time as the presidential poll.

Submitting to "the will of the people"

The election campaign began with a farce. During a stage-managed demonstration, hundreds of thousands of people begged the president not to leave the country in the lurch and to remain in power for a further seven years. At the last minute, Saleh finally submitted to "the will of the people" and allowed himself to be nominated as presidential candidate by his party, the National People's Congress.

The 64-year-old leader had repeatedly offered assurances for almost a year that he wanted to clear the way for the "next generation." That was now simply forgotten.

So the new president will be the same as the old, the same as the president since 1978 – nobody has any doubt about that. But still, the election has seen a lot of movement in what is the only republic in the region. For the first time, Saleh will have to face serious opponents.

Last time, seven years ago, the main opposition party, the Islamic-tribal Islah, supported the incumbent. Now, Islah, the socialists and other, smaller parties have their own joint candidate. The 72-year-old Faisal bin Shamlan was a cabinet minister in the former socialist southern Yemen, then, after reunification, he was oil minister and provoked a sensation when he resigned in protest against corruption.

Election campaigns which deserve the name

Even if Shamlan were a better speaker, more charismatic and bit younger, he wouldn't have much chance of winning the presidency. The power structures in Yemen are too dependent on Saleh and his family and the people have too great a fear of the instability and chaos which might result from a sudden change of power. In many parts of the impoverished country, tribal loyalty rather than political policy determines how people vote, and the local sheikh is more important that the president.

Raufa Hassan (photo: Larissa Bender)
Leading protagonist in the fight for democracy and women's rights in Yemen – Raufa Hassan

​​But all the same, for the first time, government and opposition are holding election campaigns which deserve the name. It's no longer taboo to criticise the president. His main challenger has defined the vote as a "choice between truth and lies, progress and reaction, prosperity and poverty." In his speeches, he describes the current government as "corrupt and drunk on power" – and hundreds of thousands of people listen to him.

Shamlan also wants to reduce the power of the presidency in order to make the judicial system more independent and to give more power to the provincial governments. These are outspoken criticisms, and they are broadcast on state television – even if only at the end of detailed coverage of the president's own campaign. But this is new: "People are losing their fear of opposing the first man in the state – that's a step forwards," says Raufa Hassan, who has been fighting for years for democracy and women's rights in Yemen.

Two women in the cabinet

Women too are using this election to demand more political influence. Yemen was the first country in the region to give women the vote. And there are two women in the cabinet, which is a sign of considerable progress compared to other countries in the region. But it's not enough for Yemenite women.

"We've been demanding for over a year a quota for women in the local elections," says Hassan. She wants to see 1,000 women with guaranteed places in communal parliaments. That would be fifteen percent, and the parties have agreed to the quota. "But none of them have kept their word," she says. Activists from various organisations marched to the presidential palace in August to protest; "It was the first demonstration by women for women in Yemen since reunification," says Hassan.

But the parties took little notice. The conservative Islah failed to nominate any women candidates. So the women's organisations gathered money themselves to ensure that the few remaining women candidates didn't remain without a chance. They provided each of the ninety independents with the equivalent of 400 euros. "In 1993, the discussion was whether women even wanted to have the vote," says Hassan. "Now at least we're talking about women candidates. That's the beginning of a real women's movement in Yemen."

The head of the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Sanaa, Felix Eikenberg, sees signs of democratisation. The opposition is well organised, especially in the local areas, and they ensure that their candidates do not stand against each other. According to Eikenberg, "That shows political maturity. If the elections are reasonably free and fair and if the main opposition candidates gets around 30%, then that will at least be a start." That will help make people aware that a peaceful transition of power is possible. Perhaps the Yemenis will use their fourth chance this year to get a bit closer to democracy.

Klaus Heymach and Susanne Sporrer

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

© 2006

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