Assessing Progress of Yemen’s Democratization [Archives:1997/51/Law & Diplomacy]

December 22 1997

By: Sameer Al-Abdali*
May 22nd, 1990 is considered an important milestone in the Yemeni people’s strive towards a better future for two important events: 1) The reunification of the country; and 2) Yemen’s democratic reforms as stated in the new unified constitution. With the reforms, Yemen saw the establishment of a plethora of political parties and organizations, as well as private and partisan newspapers, and many civic institutions. The Yemeni people realized new rights and freedoms which they hadn’t known for many years during colonial and Imami rule, and during earlier republican regimes. Some have considered Yemen’s entry into democracy and unification an important phase despite the lack of a democratic culture or any practical experience within the ruling political elite and the Yemeni society. Yemen was characterized by authoritarian cultures and ideologies in both parts, to a degree that party pluralism was criminalized. An important dialogue took place between the rulers of both Yemens before unification regarding the democratic reforms. They were both faced by two realities that threatened their existence. The first is internal which was manifested in a legitimacy crisis due to social, political, and economic crises that were the result of their failure to realize the required development. And the other was external due to the democratic changes in the world as described by Samuel Huntington. These and other factors had the two requires to accept democracy as the basis for the unified Republic of Yemen. Despite the transformation of Yemeni society to a New era, the last few years have shown many positive and negative results that were clear in the crises that almost lead to the crumbling of democracy and unity. There were directly due to many factors like the dominant political culture and the difficulty in the society accepting democracy as a complete system, as well as the political elite’s lack of understanding the tolerance, participation, and peaceful transfer of power. We also should not disregard the effect of regional effects that played a negative role on the democratic experience in the Republic of Yemen that represents a unique case in the Arabic Peninsula. Democratic reforms in Yemen have made giant strides through two electoral experiments in April 93 and April 97. There have shown the Yemeni society’s acceptance of democracy despite it being a traditional religious society ruled by tribal custom and plagued by illiteracy, in hope of better experiencing democratic expertise for the society and political elite. A quick look at political reform can be shown as follows: 1) Constitutional laws stressed the importance of political reforms, and were more developed than any others in the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East. 2) More than 40 parties and political organizations were founded after May 1990. The number decreased after the 1994 war, due to internal weakness and fear of the future. 3) Over 140 newspapers, magazines, and periodicals were established. The number then declined due to market dictates and mistakes in managing them. Other reasons include low investments in journalism, weakness of professional cadres, and the exit of the Yemeni Socialist Party from the coalition running the country. 4) NGO criterea began to appear, although they lacked the institutional depth in the way they were applied and were dependent on tribal leaders. The fact was that they were not specialized enough to have a serious role in society and gov’t. 5) The most important point in the democratic reforms in Yemen is manifested in the electoral competition, in the two periods of 93 and 97. After unity, the two parties split power, and allowed political parties and organizations to express themselves as a democratic front that was taken when necessary. The major coalition partner (GPC) was able to create a tribal-religion party (Islah) to face the minor coalition partner that had vision of a modern state but lacked the methodology to implement its plans, and a common language to deal with the Yemeni tribal realities, and despite its more democratic programs, practiced non- democratic ways in dealing with its membership. During the 1993 election period, the coalition party were successful in filling the majority of the parliamentary seats, opposite parties had few seats, and the GPC successfully allowed Islah to obtain over 55 seats (out of 301) to become the third member of the governing coalition, in an attempt on part of GPC to become the power broker between the socialist left and the religious right. However, the YSP considered the seats given for Islah, as coming from its own seats, which lead to deep differences among the ruling trio. In turn this lead to the resolution of the conflict in a traditional Yemeni way of military confrontation in the summer of ’94. The YSP, as a result, was out of the political picture. Democratic reforms took steps backward. But the most important result was the salvaging and strengthening of the country’s unity. The following era saw attempts by Islah to fill the vacuum created by the departure of theYSP. The Yemeni Constitution was amended to include laws to deepen religious orientation. This in turn lead to a struggle between the new partners. This did not measure up due to the deep relations between the two leaderships, but lead to differences within Islah’s leadership, between the fundamentalist wing that did not get international or local support because of fears of turning Yemen into an Iran or Sudan. The GPC took advantage of this rift and used the1997 elections to become the undisputed power player in Yemen. The GPC also solicited the participation of other political leaders in a belief that the democratic experiment in Yemen would face the challenges which if dealt with correctly could lead to better results such as 1- solving the economic difficulties through proper planning; 2- the abatement of fiscal and civil corruption; 3- political normalization, and the creation of strong civil society institutions; and 4- the building of a balanced relationship with the opposition parties based on mutual respect and tolerance.
* Mr. Sameer Al-Abdali works at the Political Department of the Yemeni Center for Studies and Reseacrh.