Yemen is a country in trouble. Recently ranked the twelfth most unstable nation in the world, ahead of Haiti, Afghanistan, and Rwanda by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Yemen is teetering on failure. Among the top indicators of Yemen's instability are factionalized elites, uneven development and delegitimization of the state. The concentration of power in the executive branch has fostered rampant corruption and widespread human rights abuses, including the imprisonment of young children as retribution. Yemen has slid into a painful anarchy and the only consistent law is the supremacy of the personal interests of the ruling elites. Those acting in the public interest do so at great risk to themselves. The threat to regional stability of a failed Yemen could not be greater.
Carnegie notes that in general, "Elections are almost universally regarded as helpful in reducing conflict. However, if they are rigged…they can be ineffective or even harmful to stability." Presidential elections, scheduled in Yemen for 2006, offer hope to this battered nation and a generation of Yemeni children. A legitimate Yemeni election may be the linchpin of regional democratization efforts and the battle against extremism. But among numerous other structural distortions in Yemen, a key democratic process, elections in a multiparty system, is dysfunctional.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh ruled former North Yemen from 1978 through its unification with the south in 1990. He has since remained president of united Yemen. The country held its first presidential election in 1998. Saleh won by a margin of 96 percent against a little-known member of his own party, the General People's Congress (GPC). The Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) was not allowed to present a candidate and called the vote a sham. A primary opposition party, Islah, did not run a candidate but instead nominated Ali Saleh before his own party did. The five year presidential term was later extended to seven years.
The ruling General People's Congress is not a party of ideology, but rather opportunity. GPC membership is necessary to gain employment in government, military, and many civil society sectors. Businessmen belonging to opposing parties face a risk to their livelihood. A rough comparison may be drawn to the Ba'ath party under Saddam Hussein, another society where power was concentrated in the executive and all governmental benefits and privileges flowed through the ruling party.
In the parliamentary elections of 2003, the GPC secured only 58 percent of the vote even with this intense pressure on the electorate and the promise of social benefits by GPC candidates. (The GPC was allotted 75 percent of parliamentary seats.) Electoral legitimacy was further undermined by "political intimidation, underage voting, inappropriate behavior by the security forces and vote-buying," according to the Washington-based National Democratic Institute. This parliament is tasked, along with an appointed Shoura council, with voting on opposition candidates for the 2006 presidential elections. An opposition candidate has to gain approval of his rival's loyalists in order to run.
Another way the Yemeni people are disenfranchised is through a long standing pattern of collusion between the leadership of the ruling GPC and that of the major opposition party, Islah. As noted by Power and Interest News Report, some top Islah leaders have "no interest in disturbing the status quo." Through a series of skillful maneuvers, alternately bribing and intimidating, President Saleh apparently has secured the agreement of Yemen's main opposition party not to oppose him. Islah may again fail to present a presidential candidate.
A third mechanism incapacitating the Yemeni multi-party system is a pattern of attacks on opposition parties. A Socialist parliamentarian, having written an article advocating reform, received death threats and faced "government rage" expressed through official media outlets. The leadership of another party, the Popular Forces Union (PFU), has stated the party's calls for reform and its criticisms of civilian deaths in the Sa'ada region prompted a barrage of assaults. The PFU party headquarters was stormed by gunmen. The computers of its newspaper, al-Shoura (Democracy), were confiscated. A PFU political leader was held at gunpoint within the party headquarters for days. Another was kidnapped for a week. Others were subject to wildly inflammatory attacks in the official media. The party was accused of having a militia and of not submitting its financial accounts. One of Yemen's oldest parties, the PFU’s legal status is being challenged.
In a statement, the Socialist Party, having suffered a bombing of its headquarters and much more, called the targeting of opposition parties "political terrorism." The attempt to exclude, subvert, defame, or injure opposition voices is part of a larger effort by many self-interested parties to prevent a free and fair election and an authentic Yemeni democracy.
Without a coordinated effort, the upcoming elections in 2006 will be only a show for Western observers who traditionally focus on the ballot box and ignore the ballot. In relation to the natural right of the Yemeni people to choose their leaders, hold their representatives accountable, and direct the governance of the country, Yemen's next election may not be a victory for democracy but its defeat. All those concerned with the well being of the Yemeni people, the stability of the region, and the advance of democracy need to rally to the side of freedom and self-determination while there still is a chance.