Local Government & Violence Serial [Archives:2001/12/Focus]

March 19 2001

Abdulbari Tahir
Demand for local government in Yemen goes back to the middle of the 20th century. The ”Sacred Charter” that had been drawn up by Yemeni free men and included in the constitution for 1948 reformist movement in Yemen’s Mutawakilia, had, in its article 31, pointed to establishing councils for the provinces and municipalities similar to those in other Arab countries. The document containing the demands of the free men forwarded by Al-Numan and Al-Zubairi to crown prince Ahmed Hameeduldin in the mid fifties of last century also included clearly the demand for local government. Thus local government is an urgent demand in contemporary Yemen and endorsed by the democratic movement.
Coordination council parties, especially Sons of Yemen League Party, have played a remarkable role in drafting the program of the local government that represents a significant development in thought of democratic opposition. The government has outflanked the local government demand and speedily drafted the Local Authority law in coordination with the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah, whose vision of local government has been characterized by much conservatism and skepticism.) The said law has been keen on appointing governors of governorates and districts.
This law was met with extensive criticism and skepticism regarding its constitutional legality.
Following its amendment, the constitution gives the right to the citizen to elect the president of the republic, whereas the local authority law does not grant the citizen the right to elect the governor of the province or the district, the smallest administrative unit in Yemen republic. The second shortcoming is that the law adds further tax burdens exceeding 25 kinds of taxes on the citizen, a matter which has rendered the local councils an instrument for levying taxes more than being one for development and construction.
Despite the defects in the law, the state has proposed it and called for elections for local councils along with the referendum on the constitutional amendments. Such coincidence of the two activities has implications that cannot be overlooked. It is as if the state is giving local councils as a reward, in return for accepting the constitutional amendments.
All political parties have announced their intention to take part in the elections. And although all the parties have participated in the elections and the referendum, the popular unwillingness and tepid turnout in the elections was rather evident. Participation did not exceed 35% of the registered voters. The election process has been characterized by tension, mainly between the GPC and the Islah.Violence that overshadowed the elections cannot but be attributed to the wrong mobilization and the mentality of incrimination and mistrust governing the ideological, political and information system network involving the nationalist, the Islamist and the leftist parties.
The political climate is predominating our Arab region and our secluded Yemeni environment is characterized by illiteracy and weapons, which is responsible to a great extent for the incidents of killing in the recent elections. It was mentioned that number of people killed or wounded in those incidents had exceeded 60 But while announcing the primary results of elections in three governorates, chairman of the elections supreme committee mentioned that the number of those killed did not exceeding 30.
This man does not seem to realize the danger of killing in a tribal community that it would lead to other killings, especially due to the absence of law and order. What is worse is the mixture of tribal issue with partisan work and politicizing the process killing and hostilities.
The question is whether the wrongly- managed mobilization was alone responsible for the wave of violence that marred the prospect of emerging democracy in Yemen, or if there are other factors no less important that the mobilization itself. Resorting to fighting in itself throws suspicion on credibility of voting and defies prevalence of honesty and confidence in the electoral process altogether. The whole matter, it seems, is no more than dictation of fait accompli, peacefully or by war. He who intends to appeal to people’s choice can not hope to get it by weapon or seize it by force. People may have the right to wonder with distress what would be the situation in case of holding the presidential, parliamentary and local elections that would almost coincide with each other, all having great impact on the political life, especially in the light of what happened during the recent elections as a yardstick, where more than thirty people were killed and other thirty injured. The state of affairs could be interpreted as that peaceful democratic development is still fraught with dangers. It could also be assumed that resorting to weapon is easier than deciding things at ballot boxes.
It is quite true that the party or the state that uses ballot boxes as a tactics paper or a fig leaf to hide the law of force as the main factor of ruling, would certainly create an opposition of the same sort. The state in Yemen or the People’s General Congress party cannot push people to ballot boxes that fail to provide credibility for change. The Yemeni citizen is well aware of manipulation in registration books, though he actually depends on weapons and means of force and other ways of influence more than the actual voices of the electors. Though the armed conflict has taken place between the ruling party and the Islah party, yet its damage and destructive impact has percolated to the entire Yemeni society and left deep scars inside the promising democratic experiment.
A comparison between demands of the free men in the 40’s and 50’s and the law of the local authority, would regretfully show that the Yemeni free men movement’s propositions outweigh the present ones.
If we compare between the state of affairs in Bahrain and that in Yemen, the situation would tilt the balance in favor of Bahrain. Bahrain is moving from a princedom into a kingdom and is drafting a national charter and rehabilitating its suspended constitution. It is setting free political prisoners and abolishing the state security and converting some prisons and jails into institutions. It was issued a general amnesty to those exiled since the 60’s and 70’s and allowing them to return to their homeland. Finally Bahrain is achieving a national reconciliation, giving opportunity to all its sons to take part in building their future. Whereas the image in Yemen is quite different. Since the war of 1994 the country is witnessing a regression from the democratic approach. Talking about national reconciliation in Yemen is considered a national treason and going to ballot boxes is associated with bloodshed. The Yemeni society is also witnessing a steady withdrawal from basic liberties and a return to violence and use of force. The open exchange of praise between the GPC and Islah cannot conceal the grinding crisis between them.
Local councils elections have placed before Yemen several overlapping probabilities. The first is that the ruling party should read the voter’s message carefully. The message is addressed to the rule since the presidential elections of 1990. The Yemeni people are impatient with corruption and appalled with comprehensive corruption of administration, unrestrained in security and corrosion of the state’s prestige, in addition to prevalence of violence and kidnapping acts and violation of order and law. The people are impatient with the severe economic crisis and soaring up prices and unemployment. A careful appraisal of the message by the ruling party should be followed by a treatment, solution and a change.
The second probability is that of making slight changes that would not cure the nature of the crisis and would allow the rule to continues putting the blame of the whole situation on the ”conspiracy” and political enemies. This could be the most dangerous probability. Another probability is that the reins get out of the government’s control, as has been the situation that accompanied elections of the local councils .
Those elections have dropped the fig leaf, unveiled fragility of Yemeni political alliances and disclosed depth of the crisis as well as the weakness of its political life. Despite the results the elections have confirmed that the ruling party is in need of reconsideration of its policies, recognize existence of the crisis and tackle its impact before it is too late.