How close are we to real democratic rule? [Archives:2004/702/Opinion]

January 12 2004

Hassan Al-Haifi
Of course the declared commitment of the Yemeni Government to democratic rule is indeed a welcome omen that improve the chances of Yemen joining the few privileged societies of the world that do enjoy significant degrees of freedom and the right to participate, in varying degrees in the political process. Furthermore, the basic legislative framework that has been instilled in the institutional translation of this commitment seems to assure us that, at least, there is no turning back from where we are at present as far as progress towards achieving a true modern democracy. The holding of the Sana'a Inter-Governmental Regional Conference on Democracy is clear testimony that Yemen should do all that is possible to enhance democracy at home as well as on the regional front.
For most astute observers however, there are far too many steps that need to be trotted before Yemen can safely say that it is truly enjoying democracy as most of the civilized societies of the world are enjoying to a certain degree or another. Of course one may say that it is not enough to just declare a commitment to democracy when, on the ground, one does not see any real manifestations of interactions between the general body politic and the elements that have a firm footing on the power centers of Yemen's fragile governing establishment. In fact, many would even suggest that these elements seem to feel that they are not truly subject to the appropriate checks and balances from an institutional sense, or the effective tools of democratic rule that will often help in curtailing any contempt for the public interest or the disregard for equal access and equal rights to the privileges and the resources, enjoyed mainly by these elements. On another note, there are others who argue that commitment to democratic principles without a willingness to sacrifice some of these privileges and excessive rights enjoyed by only a few of the citizens of the country and without the latter appearing as model citizens in the application of democratic rules and conduct in conducting public affairs or engaging in the political process raise suspicions as to the seriousness of this commitment.
One can understand that democracy that is fed to the society from the top-down and not generated by a persistent grass roots elements, is bound to have the meanings that are envisioned by those who are on the top and publicly stating their commitment accordingly. In such a case, one is led to genuine worries that democracy would be misunderstood by the general population, whose cultural and educational horizons have yet to reach full maturity. Accordingly the overwhelming majority of the body politic will assume that democracy is then no more than cliches and decorative coating for the ruling establishment to enjoy their grip on determining the directions that the society should be heading towards. This in turn also leads to instilling apathy as an incurable illness among the body politic of the nation and renders the progress towards stronger meanings to genuine democratic government.
Some might say that there are bound to be limitations in democratic rule in a society that is still below the level of social maturity for democracy to work as it should to protect the people from any misuse of government or mismanagement of public resources. To this, the observer will only recall that the Yemenis in the past have often shown that they are far more closer to understanding what democracy really entails than these downgraders of popular intellect would like to believe. In the early days of the Republic, especially in the post-civil war Yemen of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Government in Yemen was more responsive to public opinion and most political big whigs were hesitant in stepping out of line or raising public outcries against any visible improprieties in conduct or degree of questionable wealth. Later on when the Yemeni cooperative movement had its heyday in the mid 1970s, people throughout the country were actively taking part in the organization and the management of cooperative associations, whether at the local, regional or national level. Moreover, there was a strong apparent display of transparency and accountability in the management of these cooperatives and the many useful projects they were able to execute. When the central government took over the treasuries of these cooperatives and intervened in their management, it was a quick downhill slide, and an end to real participatory quasi government activity. For sure, it was not perfect, but for sure also, it was better than anything existing today that is meant to be a replacement for this novel experimnent. The essence of all this is to underline the considerable importance of truly allowing the people to participate in all social and political activities. Needless to say, the Transition Period after unification (1990-1994) saw another blossoming of democratic activity for a brief period, as the urge to organize and to enjoy the rights of political plurality and a truly free press became manifest. Part of the problem lies in an agglomeration of Executive Procedures that supposedly set out the ways that the Constitution and the respective laws for which they are issued should work. In the end, these complicated Executive Procedures have gone a long way to impairing whatever good intents are implied by the Constitution and the laws for which they are issued. With the issuance of these procedures left to the Executive Branch, one can see the absence of transparency and accountability strongly reinforced by these procedures and thus the obvious misrepresentation of the laws they supposedly compliment – a serious obstacle to real progress in democratic rule.