A few good parliamentarians [Archives:2005/856/Opinion]

July 4 2005

Fatima Fouad
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There is a common misconception that Yemeni parliamentarians do not know how much power they possess; stating this is not only naive, but it is a serious slap in the face of democracy. If the support of some thousand people who elected a certain parliamentarian as a representative is considered useless, then we ought to ask ourselves why we need elections in the first place.

In an impoverished country like Yemen where illiteracy prevails, many people do not have the assertiveness to tackle public officials and question them. They often see the parliament as a body that is loyal to the government rather than a true representative of the public. Although Yemeni citizens exercise their right to vote, few of them understand the mutual roles and responsibilities that need to be played post-elections.

The magnitude of the authority that can be exerted by the parliamentarians is significant; it is however limited and constrained for many reasons. The power of the parliament corresponds directly to the level of communication between the Members of Parliament (MP) and their constituencies. Currently, there is an absence of a strategic and clear agenda of the MPs that the wider public can follow and hold their elected officials accountable to.

There are also a number of other issues that prevent the parliament from reaching its full potential. Such concerns include unfocused and meandering legislative sessions and the ambiguity of parliamentarians' agendas. Additionally, most MPs lack strategic communication with both the government and citizens and have limited incentives for parties to work together within the parliament. Furthermore, there is a lack of gender diversity.

In a perfect world the parliament would not simply be drafting, approving or opposing legislation, controlling the government's budget and making pro-poor decisions. The parliament would move beyond these steps to communicating regularly and directly with citizens, demanding information from the various ministries and publicizing wrongdoing to hold the government accountable. The parliament would be a legislator, debater and scrutinizer.

To be fair, the Yemeni parliament has been able to challenge the government in some cases of corruption and publicize it to the media. However, it has failed to investigate a significant number of issues. The hurdles facing the parliament in this endeavor are constrained by the bureaucracy and the quality of administration in Yemen.

Another important issue that should not be overlooked is the fact that 80% of the parliament belongs to one political party. This is capable of causing a bias in some issues and undermines the efficiency of the parliament in holding the government accountable.

In a recent paper presented by MP Mr. Sakhr Al-Wageeh at the regional workshop organized by the National Democratic Institute, he mentioned that the delay in receiving requested data from various ministries hinders parliamentary committees from performing their duties. He also indicated that more serious impediments arise when some ministers abstain from being questioned by the parliamentarians. There are a number of pending cases in the parliament that are ignored by the very people who are supposed to be responsible for implementing the law. Other MPs like Mr. Faisal Abu Raas have emphasized the importance of building a network with other parliamentarians in the region that can enhance the capacity of MPs to develop and expand their role.

However, the need for citizens to contribute to the mandate and strategies of their MPs is more often than not left unattended. This should not come as a surprise as the institutions that can challenge or empower the parliament such as the media and civic organizations do not play a strategic role in this political game.

The role of the Yemeni parliament is developing, but it remains undervalued. Yemeni parliamentarians are among the most qualified leaders in society and they hold substantial potential to further the aspirations of the people. However, the parliament should not expect to have any power if they fail to communicate effectively with the Yemeni citizens. The current parliament is under pressure not only to deliver results, but to build a shared vision and a civil identity among all the segments of the Yemeni society, putting aside political, social or tribal affiliations. The urgency of this task is one that the parliament has not yet been fully achieved but which there remains high hopes for.