The SCER’s Crisis! [Archives:2007/1109/Opinion]

December 6 2007

By: Abdullah Al-Faqih
Once again, the formation of the Supreme Commission for Elections and Referenda (SCER) is becoming a crisis situation. The General People's Congress (GPC), which has been Yemen's one ruling party for the past 12 years, sidelined the issue of SCER until its term in office has expired. Only then, the GPC's block in the Yemeni House of Representatives (HR) decided to take the issue up for a floor discussion. In terms of policy orientation, the GPC seems to pursue business as usual, which means in this case to dominate the SCER and to decide elections' results even before voters cast their ballots. But the old ways of doing things are no longer tolerated. With the country sliding into chaos, the last thing the Yemeni opposition and independents want is to heat yesterday's meal and serve it as today's dish.

In the past, President Saleh, who has complete control over party rank and file, was viewed by the main competing social and political forces as an arbitrator. In that capacity, and for many years, Saleh maintained a delicate balance that kept his regime afloat. He largely drew his support and legitimacy from an extraordinary ability to build, maintain, and balance alliances. For the most part, he was indirectly elected by members of the HR whom he had personally selected and supported during elections. As a result, he always had the final word on almost everything, including the formation of the seemingly independent SCER. He has single-handedly picked up members of every SCER formed during the past 14 years. And every SCER formed has mostly acted on Saleh's wishes.

But things have dramatically changed over the past few years. The causes of change are many. Some are indigenous to Saleh's regime; others are exogenous. In terms of indigenous factors, Saleh, the long serving soft dictator, lost interest in building, maintaining, and balancing alliances. Instead, Saleh started to concentrate power, wealth, and force in his relatives, in-laws, and undoubted loyalists. In terms of exogenous forces, the country's unification, the population's explosion, and increase in literacy all led to increasing demand for resources, including political power. They also made Saleh's job harder than ever before. To meet the challenges, Saleh followed a policy of exclusion and deprivation. He sought to weaken his current and potential political rivals by employing flawed electoral processes. At the same time, Saleh's ability to rule effectively significantly diminished. While the world is rapidly changing around him, Saleh appears to be increasingly preoccupied with political survival.

And, as the country's political, social, and economic conditions ran from bad to worse, Yemen's main opposition forces joined hands and formed the Joint Meeting Parties (the JMP) in 1993. By the end of 1995, the JMP adopted a broad platform called the JMP's Initiative for Political and National Reforms. The initiative, which resembles in its significance the British magna carta, called for comprehensive political, economic, social, and cultural reforms. Electoral reforms, in particular, are seen as the first step in a long process of nation building. By electoral reforms, the JMP and independents refer to reforms tacking the electoral system, process, and administration.

In terms of the formation of SCER, the JMP seeks to ensure that the SCER enjoy genuine independence and neutrality. To achieve that goal, various reforms should be carried out, including the alteration of the electoral system. The JMP proposes that membership in the commission is equally divided between the ruling party and opposition parties. The 9 seats should be divided 5-4 with the presidency of the commission counted as two seats.

By contrast, the GPC insists on staffing the commission by judges. The JMP rejects the GPC's proposal on the ground that such an approach does not promote neutrality of elections' administration. It is argued by many in Yemen that the judicial system itself lacks independence and its members are socialized into an environment full of corruption and patronage. Judges' chances of appointment and promotion depend largely on personal and clientele relationships to those in power.

The GPC's second option is to distribute the SCER's seats according to parties' seats in parliament. The JMP rejects the option arguing that the SCER is a referee and, as such, it should be neutral and the political weight of competing parties should not be used as a criterion for determining the distribution of SCER's seats.

So far, the situation seems to have reached a deadlock. The GPC is adopting a hard-line position threatening to go ahead and use its super majority in the HR to form the SCER alone. The GPC leaders whisper in the ears of their associates that only the president can soften the position and no one in the party has the power to make concessions. Likewise, the JMP views the formation of SCER as a defining step of what politics will look like in the future. They are convinced that the regime is preparing a coup det'at against democracy.

While both parties defend their standpoints, one thing seems to be certain; if the upcoming SCER is not made neutral enough, the serving HR will be the last elected parliament in today's Yemen.

The author is a professor of politics at Sana'a University. For comments, please email the author at: [email protected]