The roots of protest: Prior elections impact future polls [Archives:2008/1210/Front Page]

November 24 2008

By: Jane Novak
For the Yemen Times

LAHJ, Nov. 22 ) Voter registration committees triggered protests on Thursday that drew crowds estimated at hundreds of thousands. The registration process was launched November 11 in preparation for April's Parliamentary election.

A teen was killed at a registration center in Radfan, Lahj on November 15 when police opened fire on protesters, an opposition MP said. Registration committees were forcibly ejected by residents in other southern towns. Radfan was the scene of four fatalities in September 2007 when security forces clashed with protesters. The year-long protest movement in the southern governorates culminated in the election of the Southern Liberation Council (SLC) on November 14, 2008. The SLC, purporting to represent hundreds of thousands of southern Yemenis, will boycott the election.

Yemen's opposition party alliance, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), is boycotting the registration process. The JMP claims the registration committees were illegally formed and favor the ruling General People's Congress Party (GPC). Security officials said on Thursday that hampering the committees' activities is a crime. Dozens of JMP activists were arrested during otherwise peaceful protests.

Authorities report several hundred thousand new voters or domicile changes have been recorded since the registration process began. The GPC said the election will be held as scheduled and alleges the JMP is instigating the protests out of weakness.

After Yemen's 2006 presidential and local elections, European Union (EU) election observers recommended measures to build public confidence in the electoral process, but steps were never taken. Current unrest stems largely from diminished pubic faith in the impartiality and integrity of the electoral process. Protests are also a backlash to the heightened expectations generated by the 2006 campaigns.

Yemen's 2006 elections were vibrant and a substantial improvement over prior elections. The JMP's presidential candidate, Faisel bin Shamlan, campaigned freely throughout Yemen and was granted equal time by the state owned broadcast media. Bin Shamlan garnered 23 per cent of the vote. The JMP alleged systematic fraud, but accepted the outcome in the interest of stability and with the hope of codifying electoral reform.

European Union (EU) observers commended “significant and positive developments” but also found serious problems. “The fairness of the campaign was undermined by the systematic and exclusive use of State resources to favor the incumbent. State agencies, especially the police and military, showed overwhelming support for President Saleh and the ruling party,” their final report states.

President Saleh mobilized his party promising “A New Yemen.” Many trusted in Saleh to maintain stability and create economic growth more than the untested challenger. After the election, voters saw the price of wheat double, 40 per cent unemployment and 27 per cent inflation. Reforms, development and anti-corruption measures touted in the campaign have been slow to materialize.

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Opposition voters were also disappointed. Many believe voter fraud was more severe than reported by the EU. The GPC, working through the state apparatuses, meted out significant retribution to opposition activists after the election including political manipulation of civil service employment. For example, some teachers believe they were transferred to distant locations as a punitive measure for their political activities.

EU recommendations include transparent vote counting, enforcement of election law, media fairness, and improving the voter register, electoral laws and systems. These recommendations formed the basis for a JMP-GPC dialog. Specific reforms include prohibiting voters from registering an employment address as a domicile of record, an important limitation considering the size of Yemen's military. Other JMP concerns include the neutrality of state owned media and the public budget during elections. In 2006, the voter registry contained hundreds of thousands of underage and duplicate registrations. The JMP insists on access to a soft copy of the registry.

The JMP strongly advocates adopting the proportional or list method. The “first past the post” method in place gives advantage to the ruling party. In 2003's parliamentary election, the GPC received 58 per cent of the vote and 238 seats. Candidates of JMP member party, Islah, won 22 per cent of the vote but only 46 seats. The GPC's parliamentary seats increased from 123 in 1993, to 187 in 1997 and 238 in 2003. The participation of independent candidates and women candidates sharply dropped in each election.

At an impasse, the JMP boycotted Parliament during July 2008. The GPC dominated parliament passed legislation without implementing any electoral reforms, blaming the JMP for the failure of consensus. On August 26, President Saleh selected the members of the Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendums (SCER). In turn, the JMP called for a boycott of the registration.

In the southern governorates, JMP candidate bin Shamlan enjoyed significant support in 2006. However, faith in competitive politics as a mechanism of redress dimmed after the election, and southerners turned to protests then self-organized outside the party system.

Over twenty protesters were killed since September 2007 in southern Yemen, hundreds injured and over a thousand arrested in confrontations with police. As monthly demonstrations swelled, authorities responded by outlawing unauthorized gatherings, arresting civil leaders, journalists and protesters while providing few practical remedies to longstanding grievances.

Southern demands initially centered on land theft and other alleged systemic governmental discrimination including exclusion from employment. Popular sentiment hardened in response to the state's use of force. Many now dispute the legitimacy of the central government, contending unity was illegally imposed by force after Yemen's 1994 civil war.

The Southern Liberation Council's leadership was elected in Yafe by 350 delegates from 50 districts across south Yemen during a November 2008 conference. Hassan Ba'oum who heads the SLC, was arrested for treason in April 2008 after demanding an end to “northern occupation” at a rally. Ba'oum's detention prompted new demonstrations. Along with 863 other southern activists, Ba'oum was released in September. Hundreds of men armed with RPG's guarded the Yafe conference. Other no-go areas for government forces in southern Yemen include parts of al-Dhalie and Abyan. Residents expelled government officials from Toor Albaha in Lahj in April 2008, and 40 soldiers captured there were released in August.