Democracy in Yemen: The Arabian peninsula’s first contested presidential election [Archives:2006/992/Opinion]

October 19 2006

Abigail Lavin
September 2006 brought an unprecedented development in the Middle East: The government of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh held open, contested presidential elections. Candidates were able to rally and campaign freely, each of the five candidates was given equal airtime on state-run television, and the international press and elections monitors were welcomed to Yemen to observe. This homegrown move toward democracy represents a remarkable political experiment that, if successful, will provide the region with a model of a state that is Arab, Islamic, genuinely democratic. Of course, the incumbent won. As the second-longest serving head of state in the Middle East, behind Libya's Mu'ammar Gaddafi, it is not surprising Saleh was elected to serve another seven-year term. What is surprising is that, as an editorial in the Yemen Times put it following the elections; Yemen has “removed the 99 percent victor stereotype.” Saleh got 77.2 percent of the vote, while his chief rival, the oil magnate Faisal bin Shamlan, received 21.8 percent. This is in sharp contrast to Yemen's previous presidential “elections” in which Saleh received 96 percent of the vote. Recent “free elections” elsewhere in the Middle East have resulted in votes for the authoritarian incumbent of 88.6 percent (in Egypt) and 94.5 percent (in Tunisia). Leslie Campbell, official in the National Democratic Insitute commented on monitoring Yemen's elections that in this year's elections, Saleh's campaign managers “actually were worried. I think that for an Arab get 70-some percent of the vote would be pretty hard for him to take. This wasn't just a showpiece election.”

The Yemeni elections were not perfect. Following Saleh's victory, his rivals alleged vote-buying and other forms of fraud at the ballot stations. There was election-related violence, including the deaths of 51 people in a stampede at a Saleh rally. Still, the E.U. Election Observation Commission declared the election “an open and genuine political contest.” While there is much room for improvement, Yemen's presidential election “blows the other Gulf countries out of the water,” says Campbell. “Having watched democratic developments for 10 years in the Middle East, this may have been the most significant election so far. This is the first time in an Arab country that a head of state has actually created the situation where there was a possibility, albeit a remote possibility, of defeat. The fact that somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of the population felt free to go out and vote for the opposition candidate is quite incredible.”

Yemen's cutthroat presidential campaigning is an anomaly in the Middle East, where the idea of having a military general who has ruled for over a quarter-century mount a campaign for reelection would sound preposterous to many. But Saleh campaigned vigorously to subdue the mounting threat from bin Shamlan, a popular former MP who ran under the slogan, “A President for Yemen, not a Yemen for the President.” Bin Shamlan, who ran as a member of the Joint Meeting Parties, a coalition of five parties including Islamist and socialist groups, made oil-price stabilization and decentralization of authority focal points of his presidential platform. Meanwhile, Saleh's party, the General People's Congress, attempted to portray the 28-year incumbent as “the Knight of the Arabs” and an “Achiever of National corruption.

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After nearly 30 years being dogged by accusations of cronyism and mismanagement of Yemen's oil resources, why did Saleh decide to hold competitive elections now? Many authoritarian leaders hold sham elections in an attempt to improve their image, but the Yemeni elections were not just political theater. In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Ahmad Mansour a week before the elections, Saleh said, “I am proud that I have established this experiment. It was not imposed on me. Nobody imposed it; not the street, not the political powers, and not the West or the United States.”

The reasons for the move toward democracy are twofold. First, Saleh has realized that a decentralization of power is necessary to govern his country's refractory population. Yemen is a tribal society, with mountainous regions that are home to numerous armed groups, including jihadist militants, which the Saleh regime has found increasingly difficult to control. This security threat was highlighted when, just five days before the election, officers foiled a group of would-be suicide bombers who had planned to attack two of the country's oil facilities. Officials in Sana'a are also faced with a sometimes violent secessionist movement from the formerly Communist south, as well as tensions between the Sunni majority and the Shiite elite. The best way to manage this instability may be to incorporate the schismatic groups. A second reason for a democratic transition is Yemen's extreme poverty. It is the poorest country in the Middle East, and its small oil into a competitive political system.

Reserves are expected to run dry within the next decade. Yemen is in desperate need of foreign aid, which has been curtailed by the World Bank and the IMF in response to the Saleh regime's corruption. Genuine efforts to democratize could lead to an increase in aid from overseas, which will be increasingly essential for Yemen's burgeoning population of 21 million, nearly half of which lives below the poverty line.

For the Bush administration, which has made democracy promotion central to its fight against terrorism, Yemen is a reminder of the effectiveness of financial incentives. Scott Carpenter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, believes that Saleh is pursuing democratic reforms partially in response to sanctions from the Millennium Compact Corporation. The MCC, created by the Bush administration in 2004, provides development aid to nations that practice “sound political, economic, and social policies” based on annual evaluations. Yemen's MCC eligibility was revoked in 2005 after it failed to meet minimum requirements for 14 of the MCC's 16 indicators, including “Control of Corruption” and “Fiscal Policy.” Carpenter stresses that, while Yemen still has a long way to go in order to meet MCC thresholds, the 2006 elections, “are going to be seen as a substantial improvement . . . and will improve their scores” in next year's MCC evaluations.

Though Yemen's 2006 elections were flawed, they are also evidence of unprecedented progress toward political liberalization in the Middle East. Reforms in Yemen could potentially serve as a catalyst for change throughout the region. Leslie Campbell of the National Democratic Institute envisions a situation where neighboring countries say to themselves, “'Look at Yemen! If this poor little country can actually run a decent election,” then why can't we?

Abigail Lavin is a staff assistant at The Weekly Standard.