YEMEN: Despite its flaws election gives hope

Feb 10, 2012

This voter education poster reads: “Cast your ballot and participate in shaping the future of your homeland” (Photo by Adel Yahya/IRIN)

SANA'A, 10 February 2012 (IRIN) - A presidential election to be held on 21 February in Yemen will open the door for a new chapter in the poorest and arguably most fragile country in the Arab world, says new Prime Minister Mohammed Salim Ba-Sindwa.

A successful election will pave the way for comprehensive reforms, said Ba-Sindwa, who was chosen to lead a national reconciliation government - part of a deal signed in November ending months of political turmoil.

Once elected directly by people, the new president will be constitutionally empowered to re-unite the divided army and replace corrupt officials in the various government institutions, Ba-Sindwa told IRIN in an interview.

“Our plan for the post-election period is to make the rule of law prevail nationwide. This is key to purifying the country from corruption and corrupt officials,” he said. “We will apply the law on the senior [official] before the junior; on the strong before the weak and on the rich before the poor.”

The prime minister’s words echo the optimism among some in the country, who see the election as the cornerstone of political transition. It is one of a string of steps stipulated in a power-transfer deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), after year-long nationwide protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule dragged the country to the brink of civil war.

“The upcoming presidential election is the first step in this challenging journey,” Gustavo Gonzalez, senior country director for the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Yemen, told IRIN. “Any positive transformation of Yemen in terms of stability, security and development will have a strong geopolitical impact on the region,” he said.

But the election faces massive challenges in feasibility and credibility, with the only candidate starting his campaign just two weeks before the election, various groups boycotting the election and violence continuing to affect parts of the country.

The sole candidate, current Vice-President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, has the backing of the main opposition grouping and former Saleh supporters, but the electorate had no input in his selection and will not have a choice on election day beyond whether or not to vote. As Jane Novak, a US-based analyst and expert on Yemeni affairs, put it, “there isn’t a `no’ vote option on the ballot”.

Hadi was nominated by a parliament that deemed the country too fragile for possibly divisive competitive elections. But Hafez al-Bukari, president of Yemeni Polling Center (YPC), a local think-tank, worries the lack of competition will lead Yemenis to believe that democratic and competitive elections are not the ideal tool for change.

New hope

Flawed as it may be, the election has nonetheless given many Yemenis hope.

“I was born in 1979 with Saleh being president… Now, I am a mother of five and he is still president,” Summaya al-Husseini, a high school teacher in the central Dhamar Governorate, told IRIN. “During Saleh’s reign, America saw six presidents… We are bored with Saleh… We need a new face to rule Yemen.”

During a speech just hours before he left Yemen for medical treatment in the USA on 22 January, Saleh confirmed he would hand over the presidential palace to Hadi after he is elected. “[I] will take [my] personal [things] and go home,” Saleh said.

For many, the break in the power barrier is itself an accomplishment.

“We never imagined that the next president would be from outside Saleh’s family members, who are controlling sensitive military and security institutions,” said Ramadhan Humaid, a grocer in the capital Sana’a.

Many voters see the ballot box as the only solution to their sufferings.

“We need better electricity and water services,” said Saleh Naji, a metal workshop owner, in Radaa city, Beidha Governorate, whose business was hit by prolonged power cuts. “We will vote for Hadi to end this turmoil that disrupted these services.”

Electoral support

Despite a fragile security situation in several parts of the country, there is hopeful progress towards polling day with voter education campaigns running in several parts of the country.

There has been considerable Western support for the elections: Within 45 days of the signing of the GCC roadmap, Japan, Germany, the UK, Denmark and the Peace-building Fund provided US$8 million in record time, said UNDP’s Gonzalez.
“These elections are extraordinarily important for any future partnership between Yemen and its international partners,” he told IRIN.

UNDP also offered US$15 million in support for the elections through two phases. Phase one will focus on the early presidential election. Phase two will focus on electoral reforms, the expected referendum on the new/revised constitution, and the post-referendum elections.
Security challenges

Yemen has seen sectarian clashes in the north; and Islamic militants fighting the government in the south. Houthi rebels controlling parts of the north, and southern secessionists, have both announced a boycott of the vote.

But Information Minister Ali al-Amrani said these security challenges were limited to specific areas: “They will have no major influence on the electoral process.”

According to al-Amrani, the single constituency system will keep security challenges to a minimum. Under this system, the entire country becomes a single constituency. An eligible voter can cast his/her ballot in the nearest polling station with an ID or voting card, instead of having to return to their place of origin in which they are registered, al-Amrani told IRIN.


But even if the elections are successful, more important, is what will follow. Hadi’s nomination as a consensus candidate for the two major political forces in the country, the opposition coalition Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) and Saleh’s General People Congress (GPC) party, is key to reaching a political agreement among the various political and tribal forces, analysts say.

“This is a good step towards ending the sharp disagreement between Saleh’s supporters and opponents, which was about to drag the country into a civil war,” Nabila al-Wadeai, secretary-general of the Yemen Election Monitoring Network (YEMN - made up of five local NGOs), told IRIN. “Hadi’s nomination as a consensus candidate is key to stability in Yemen in the future.”

According to UNDP’s Gonzalez, one of the most important benchmarks of the transition is the national dialogue process, which is supposed to bring all the Yemeni players - political parties, youth leaders, civil society organizations and the private sector - around the same table to define the new development priorities and the new political system.