April 5 1999

Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf
Chief Editor – Yemen Times
The following article is based on a presentation at the Roundtable on “Future of Democracy Development in the Arab Region” organized by IDEA (Institute for Democracy & Elections Assistance) in Stockholm during 29-30/3/1999.
1. It was on 22nd May, 1990 that Yemen’s democratization process formally began. Two nearly-bankrupt regimes, one tribal-military (in the former Yemen Arab Republic = YAR) and the other Marxist-leftist (in the Yemen Democratic Republic of Yemen = PDRY), found salvation in re-unification of Yemen. The birth of the Republic of Yemen was a long-cherished dream of the people.
2. The former YAR was ruled by the People’s General Congress (PGC) under the chairmanship of Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the former PDRY was ruled by the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP) under the chairmanship of Ali Salim Al-Beedh. For the unified new country to offer space for the two parties that had ruled its two components, a multi-party political system was agreed upon.
3. Once the door was open for political pluralism, other parties, some of which had been underground movements, also came above ground. Thus, with the birth of the new republic, the nation witnessed the rise of nearly 20 political parties. A new political atmosphere – open and tolerant, prevailed. There was an outburst of newspapers, political parties and NGOs.
4. The two parties that made the unity (PGC and YSP) also agreed to divide all government posts between them on a 50-50 parity basis. Though it was clear that the YAR had a much larger population, the PDRY more than made up for that with its larger space and richer resources.
Hence the 50-50 partition deal was held up… that is, until the 1993 parliamentary elections.
By mid-1992, the two unity partners had started a power struggle, each side trying hard to dislodge or at least downsize the other.
5. On April 27th, 1993, there were parliamentary elections. The results showed that the PGC was able to maintain its 50% of the power structure; while a new party, the Islah (officially the Yemeni Congregation for Reform – a northern-based religious party), ate away on the share of the YSP. As a result, the government formed after the 1993 elections was a 3-way split: PGC-YSP-Islah.
6. The YSP leadership could not live with the election results, and subsequent reduction in its share in power. It actually saw these developments as ‘Northern hegemony’ over the South. It wanted to go back to a divided Yemen.
First, Ali Salim Al-Beedh left Sanaa, the nation’s capital, and moved to Aden, the former capital of the PDRY. There, he started building the political and military base for a new state. He established contact with regimes which were enemies of Sanaa, and found that some of them were willing to finance his efforts to break the country. Many southerners were urged to leave Sanaa and go back to Aden, in preparation for the new country.
President Saleh and his Islah allies in the meanwhile announced that they would be forced to stop the break-away state. By early 1994, it was clear a war was inevitable, in spite of the best efforts of many Yemenis as well as others, especially the late King Hussein of Jordan.
7. On April 28th, there was a violent confrontation in Amran, between northern and southern army units. Soon push came to shove. By May 5th, a full scale civil war had started.
Northern armies encircled southern units stationed in the north and asked them to either join them in the war against the secessionists or surrender immediately. Many southern commanders stationed in the north decided not to fight, though the Southern forces which fled to the North following the 1986 civil war in the PDRY did. The secessionist regime did not have the same success in encircling northern units stationed in the south.
8. By the 7th of July, Aden surrendered as the last of the secessionist leaders fled. Unified Yemen was saved. But, what was not saved was the highly open political environment.
Between 1990 and 1994, the vision for running the nation’s affairs was a blend of PGC (centrist) and YSP (leftist) thoughts and ideas. After the 1994 war, the vision in running the nation’s affairs was a blend of PGC (centrist) and Islah (rightist-Islamist) thoughts and ideas.
9. But soon, the PGC felt shackled by its new partner – Islah. There were many complaints against Islah’s traditionalist tendencies. Many PGC leaders started talking about the limitations imposed by their partner which sought to create an Islamic republic based on its own vision. By late 1995, there was already open talk of disengagement and rivalry.
By 1996, the PGC, in preparation for the April 1997 parliamentary elections, embarked on its goal to achieve a comfortable majority in parliament to free it from Islah. Indeed the 1997 elections gave the PGC exactly that. Thus since 1997, the PGC has been the master party, formed its own government, and dominated all aspects of political life.
10. The following are some reasons for the PGC successes in elections:
— The power of incumbency;
— Abuse of state resources, media, manpower (civilian as well as security/military) and local/international connections;
— Partnership with power brokers and centers of influence in society;
— Centrist image as PGC is flanked by rightist parties (Islah & other religious parties) and leftist parties (YSP & pan-Arab parties such as Nasserite and Baath);
— Strong loyalty within the army and security apparatus which work to frustrate potential rivals;
— Absence of dogma or rigid commitment to any ideology thus allowing vast room for followers to make up their positions;
— Flexible leadership of President Saleh.
11. The future of Yemen’s democratization process will depend on what happens in the April 2001 parliamentary elections. If the PGC continues to grow it will lead to 3 troublesome developments:
— It runs the risk of breaking itself up;
— It will lead to a one-party state;
— It will render elections meaningless.
In my opinion, the following are the most important actors. It is worth watching their interaction and contribution to the nation’s evolution.
1. Civil Society Organizations:
According to a directory being completed by the Human Rights, Liberties and NGOs Committee of the Consultative Council in collaboration with the Yemen 21 Forum, there were, at the end of February 1999, exactly 3218 NGOs registered with the Ministries of Social Affairs, Culture and Tourism, Trade and Supply, and Public Health. Of these, some 300 are active all the time, and about 1000 are active at least once a year.
Before the end of 1999, a new NGO law is expected to be enacted. This law will pave the way for a more active and effective NGO movement in the country. Yet, the state (read, the ruling PGC party) has been trying hard to co-opt NGOs (through financial support), or to clone NGOs (by creating doubles) when co-option fails.
2. The Media:
The government (read, the ruling PGC party) enjoys full monopoly over radio and television stations as private ones are not allowed. In a country that is 50% illiterate, and in a society that is 70% rural, the fact that only the press provides plurality of views has little impact. Therefore, the next real move in the nation’s political evolution will depend on whether non-government radio and television stations are allowed to operate.
Within the written media (press), there is still adequate dynamism in spite of efforts to reign in the free press. There are today some 80 newspapers and magazines. These can be evenly divided between one third state owned, one third political party owned, and the last one third is owned by private interest groups, business, and independents.
3. International Partners:
As an aid-recipient country, Yemen is susceptible to ‘advice’ from its aid partners. The comments of visiting dignitaries has been important in shaping government policy towards democracy. In addition, many international NGOs such as NDI, IFES, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, RSF, have actively helped shape Yemen’s transformation. Let us hope International IDEA will join the process.
4. 2001 Elections:
Yemen today is at crossroads. The whole process of democratization is still reversible.
But the country also holds out the hope of giving the world a new success story.
What happens until April 2001 and during the April 2001 parliamentary elections is worth watching. For this process to succeed, the presently marginalized opposition parties have to be revived. Part of this, they have to do themselves. Some of these opposition parties are actually far less democratic in their internal structures than the ruling PGC, which they criticize. Yet, another part of the game has to do with the illegal and unethical pressure and over-powering that the ruling party has brought to bear on what it sees as potential rivals.
The rules of the game have to be more clearly spelled out, and transparency has to enter.