Controlled democracy [Archives:2006/949/Opinion]

May 25 2006

Ali Al-Sarari
To what extent should we consider the Yemeni people's desire to shift to democracy to be certain? Before we can answer this question, we must distinguish between the government's desires and that of the public including politically and socially powerful parties, civil society organizations, and vocational groups.

For the Yemeni authorities, we find that they have historically proved to be dictatorial and have built their oppressive tools used to control all social and financial aspects of life during the Cold War. After the new conditions that existed with the unification of Yemen in 1990 and the new international currents, which adopted the advocacy for democracy, human rights, and reforms as points of priority the for post Cold War period; the government has been compelled to become more open and permit political plurality. The government has resorted to many devices in the process of adapting itself to the latest national and international situations. Yet, at its core it was merely attempting to maintain the existing oppressive order while enhancing its tools of oppression thereby remaining dominant and the holder of a monopoly on power.

In order to limit the democratic tide during the first four years of unity, President Saleh repeatedly described the citizens' democratic practices of rights and guaranteed liberties to be that of a “democracy of stripped door.” Furthermore, the government used all available means at its disposal to subjugate and control the democratic aspirations of Yemeni people. Thus, democratic practices have gradually lost their content and become stagnant slogans. What's worse is that these practices have become a mechanism whereby the government reproduces its legitimacy.

After three parliamentary elections held in 1993, 1997, and 2003, a presidential election in 1999, and a local one in 2001, the government, by controlling the elections, has succeeded in transforming them into a convenient mechanism for maintaining the status quo discarding the need for overt despotism. Moreover, acting under the legitimacy such a contrivance conveys, protects the regime from international criticism, and prevents domestic contenders from alternative methods of gaining power.

The government, by making many constitutional and legislative amendments, have ensured their legal control of the electoral process leaving a wide margin for cheating in those areas of elections not covered by the law or by electing not to give them legal status. When considering the results of the elections, we find that the ruling party had a considerable majority in 1997 gaining 180 seats of Parliament and to have had an overwhelming majority in the 2003 elections when they gained 240 members of Parliament. In the presidential elections, President Saleh garnered 93% of votes cast, a percentage not dissimilar to other widely popular Arab leaders' election figures. The ruling party achieved a similar success story in the 2001 local elections.

Likewise, the government is attempting to have power over all facets under which the upcoming September elections will occur, so that the President prevails by a winning percentage that approximates those of other Arab leaders if not by more. For more than five months now, political combat – sometimes silently and sometimes publicly – has been initiated by the ruling party to assay the positions of the opposition to the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP).

The new conditions the government intends to impose in the upcoming elections seemingly eradicate the positive aspects of reform, both domestically and internationally, that have been previous introduced . The concern of the international community in Yemen, particularly the group of donor countries, is for the introduction and expansion of effective reforms thereby boosting the development wheel towards democracy. At the national level, the situation has markedly deteriorated. Under these conditions, the JMP was pushed to create a comprehensive national and political reform project. This project calls for key changes to be made in the heart of the political system. Importantly, the opposition has formed a strong coalition that blends together the Left, nationalistic elements, Islamicists, and liberal, national moderates. This coalition includes the Islah Party, the Yemeni Socialist Party, the Nasserite Unionist Popular Organization, the Yemeni Popular Forces Unionist Party, and the Al-Haq Party.

Amid these national and international conditions, a new balance of power has settled thereby creating the need for reconsidering the rules of the social and political game by having innovative democratic content.

The second phase of democracy, adopted by JMP, involves comprehensive reforms at all levels. It clearly and frankly declares that Yemen needs a full dose of qualitative reforms as well as setting forth a series of guarantees to guarantee the impartiality of the elections. JMP's dialogue has focused, as well, on the importance of reviewing the current circumstances of the electoral administration and the need for stamping out its defects. Also, it emphasized the necessity of having a capable and neutral administration qualified to administer the elections with the minimal amount of interference and produce untainted results.

According to the JMP, the recoil that has accompanied the Yemeni democratic experience during the past twelve years should cease and progress should go forward once again in order to the move ahead. It is absurd that reforms in the Arab affairs area have been marked by gradual progress, while the movement towards enhanced democracy has been marked by setbacks due to ruling party attempts to impair its development and progress, in spite of the fact that Yemen had previously committed itself to democracy.

The ruling party is hard pressed when dealing with opposition demands for the attainment of the minimum extent of freedoms, impartiality, and justice in the upcoming elections. The government resists violently any attempts that aim at weakening its control and authority over the electoral process. As the dialogue between the government and opposition has come to a deadlock, the government has set their sights on international stances, which will have a great effect on the Yemeni electoral process as such.

JMP wishes that the stance of the international community will serve the Yemeni democratic experience and push it a step further, but the government never ceases to persuade donor countries of the acceptability of its methods in regard to the administration of the upcoming September elections. When receiving the blessing of these countries, it will pay attention to issues raised by the opposition regarding reforms and the enhancement of the democratic experience.

Ali Al-Sarari is a Yemeni Journalist and a well-known politician. He is the head of the information department at the Yemeni Socialist Party.