NDI voices concern over potential violent elections [Archives:2006/975/Front Page]

August 24 2006

By: Mohammed Al-Qadhi
SANA'A, Aug. 22 ) The U.S. National Democratic Institute (NDI) is concerned that the upcoming Sept. 20 presidential and local elections could turn violent.

“We obviously have concerns that in the transition process of democratic development, particularly in a highly-armed nation like Yemen, there's always the potential for violence as tensions rise and conflicts between parties and individuals increase. We're concerned that there could be violence during the elections,” NDI country representative Robin Madrid said.

Concerns mount particularly with the ongoing media barrage between the ruling General People's Congress (GPC) and the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) opposition coalition.

“I think the two sides need to tone down their rhetoric. They spend more time attacking each other and attacking personalities.” Madrid commented. Media clashes are expected to increase Today after the candidates' official campaigning begins.

A major step forward

Despite her concerns, Madrid voiced positive feelings about the upcoming election and its significance in boosting the nation's democratic drive. “We have positive feelings about it. I think it's a major step forward that there's a serious opposition candidate and there will be national debates around issues,” she noted.

“For democratic development, it's critical that there be choices. You can't have democratic development if people see no real choices,” she added.

Stressing that it's impossible to evaluate the two sides before their campaigns have begun, Madrid is hopeful that there will be “a real statement of different positions on issues from the two sides and a real debate.”

She mentioned that NDI has received positive response from the Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendum (SCER) media sector in terms of its plans to organize meaningful candidate debates on polices, which Madrid considers a major step in these elections, not only for Yemen, but for the Arab world at large.

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She refuted allegations that elections and democracy add a heavy burden to the country's already weak and fragile economy, observing no contradiction between elections and development. She pointed out that Yemen faces many problems and that democratization and decentralized state institutions enable citizens to address such problems.

Madrid stressed that corruption is a major problem in Yemen that also challenges democratic development because “You can't have corruption and good democratic development; they contradict each other,” asserting that corruption can be addressed only when government officials are held accountable by voters.

She thinks both the presidential and local council elections will be contested, but what matters to her at the presidential level is “that both sides have good media access and can really state their positions clearly and that there's no bias or favoring of one side over the other. This is the most important part of the presidential election,” she said, adding, “We care that balloting, polling and counting are done cleanly and fairly.”

Complex election system

Despite praising the SCER for administrating 2003's parliamentary elections, Madrid was quite critical of Yemen's election system, which she describes as complex. “On paper, the electoral system constitutionally and legally is pretty good, but there are some problem areas.

“All international parties were disappointed and couldn't understand why a decision wasn't made to make some changes following the 2001 elections,” she observed, adding that one of the system's loopholes is that “it tends to go for the most complicated solution rather than the simplest.”

Madrid believes a simple system is suitable for a nation relatively new to elections and with a high rate of illiterate citizens. “The election process is going to be complex and this worries all international parties because with complexity, you get mistakes, which opens the door to accusations of bias and unfairness on the commission's part because it may not have understood a very complex system. From my perspective, it's a big mistake to be complex.”

She asserted that the SCER's insistence on complexity will make it very difficult for it to run two races at the same time.

Opposition complaints and “yelling”

Concerning opposition complaints that the GPC is manipulating state-run media to propagate its candidate, Madrid pointed out that opposition worldwide complain about disadvantages, adding that what's going to matter is when the official campaign period starts.

“What happens with the media, opposition access to it and their ability to organize rallies where they will place their posters, etc., will be judged during the campaign period,” she remarked, responding to opposition complaints.

She said she'd be extremely surprised by any opposition decision to boycott the election, advising them to remain in it. “I don't think boycotting elections produces any good results. It's not the way to go. It's much more important to remain in it and struggle to change the way election procedures are carried out. Opposition and the ruling party need to monitor the election, as well as campaign so they can document any problems they face,” she proposed.

Regarding opposition's previous criticism of NDI for siding with the government, Madrid responded, “NDI's role is to be responsible, recognizing that we're guests in this country and our role is to advise, train and comment.

“We need to be clear when we see problems and we need to be clear when we see improvements. Along with the government, opposition and the GPC, we need to look more toward change. Maybe you journalists can stand and yell, but that's not our role.”

A good agreement

Madrid describes the June 18 agreement between opposition and the GPC as good. “It's a good agreement that NDI takes seriously. We're working very hard to help the signers and the SCER meet its terms, as it addresses all of the standard elements of free and fair elections,” she noted, adding that she can't judge what percentage of the agreement has been fulfilled, as opposition claims only 10 percent has been met.

She confirmed that parts of the agreement have been achieved, such as adding two opposition members to the commission and achieving targeted percentages concerning the commissions that will run the elections – 54 percent for the GPC and 46 percent for opposition.

Madrid pointed out that NDI is involved in a number of activities up until 30 days before the elections, counseling and training the parties. Approximately 1,000 men and women have been trained in campaigning, while some NGOs were trained to monitor. NDI also plans to monitor the elections using 1,200 domestic and several international staff.

International monitors previously were criticized for being stationed in Yemen's main cities while most problems occur in rural areas. Madrid attributes their inability to access rural areas either to rugged roads or security situations; however, she stated that the 80 European Union monitors likely will go outside the main cities.

Political parties fail women

When asked about support for women candidates, Madrid's facial expression changed and she voiced regret at political parties discouraging women. She said the June 18 agreement's articles regarding women are disappointing because they don't contain any commitments on the signers' part.

“It's all platitudes that women are sisters of the nation and should be involved. But there's no commitment by either side in the agreement to nominate women or create closed constituencies. It's all talk and this is disappointing to us because all sides in the lead-up to elections talk about what they're going to do for women, but when they must put resources toward it, they suddenly see that they can't do it. We're keeping a skeptical eye on the women's issue,” she added.

Madrid is confident that there are competent Yemeni women for whom citizens would vote and that the political parties' pretext that citizens won't vote for women is not true. “This isn't true. The parties won't nominate women because they don't want to deal with their people,” she maintained.

She continued refuting the parties' groundless allegations and their shaky stance toward nominating women. “Both sides claim to be the one able to bring development and reform to Yemen, but if they can't stand up to their own people about nominating women, then I wonder if they can stand up to those involved in corruption. Nominating women is where they can show that they have the strength and courage to really stand up to local interests,” she concluded.

NDI involvement with tribes

Another interesting and controversial issue is NDI's involvement with tribes, which has agitated government anger to the extent of the GPC newspaper accusing Madrid some time ago of being a “spy.”

According to Madrid, several tribal sheikhs approached her two years ago to assist them in addressing violence, killings and tribal feuds. “Obviously, this is something requiring not just local involvement and international assistance but also government involvement and commitment,” she noted.

She said NDI first decided to research the problem and that its results are expected to be published this September, adding that government payment of blood money can be part of the solution but it doesn't prevent violence. “NDI sees its role as helping local leaders and government start changing the culture of violence,” she explained.

Having run NDI's office in Yemen more than five years now, Madrid acknowledged that working with tribal leaders on the violence issue invited worry from some government elements but those concerns have been lightened. However, she seemed confident that NDI's research will contribute significantly to addressing the problem by presenting clues to developing better policies to address this cultural headache.