This is an OPINION page. Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! On Democracy, Institution-building, and the Practice of Power in Yemen [Archives:1997/46/Focus]
By: Jillian Schwedler
Since 1990, Yemen has witnessed a political transformation that has been nothing short of remarkable. Notwithstanding 1994, the country has seen the emergence of a number of institutions that have come to characterize contemporary democracies of every ilk. To be sure, a participant political system–call it a democracy or not–requires stable institutions to ensure direct and fair participation by the people in selecting its representatives to parliament. But the institutions of a participatory political system serve another purpose, one that is often lost in the world-wide fascination with elections. Participant institutions ensure that government is run according to given procedures, that those procedures are transparent, and that they reasonably approach the political organization and vision of justice that the citizens themselves choose. And perhaps most importantly, institutions insure that those who govern are directly accountable to the people.
What is an institution?
What most people think of institutions, are the buildings and offices: parliament, courts, universities, research centers, and so on. But institutions may be legal systems, constitutions, social norms, and even historical social formations. For example, Yemen’s tribal system is an institution in that it entails a specific power structure and identifiable practices and norms that guide behavior with regard to tribal issues. Institutions are often imagined to be fixed entities that are not subject to evolutionary change, but history seldom supports this view of even the most “stable” of institutions. Just as the constitution of the United States has evolved as a result of years of judicial interpretation, so has Yemen’s tribal structure adapted to changing circumstances. One can speak, for example, of increased or decreased relations with the central government and the emergence of entirely new practices, such as the large tribal “conferences” that were organized in the first years following Yemeni unity. Similarly, Islamic law, or Shari’a, might also be considered a viable institution just as a constitution may be an institution. Islamic law serves as a set of norms and rules by which Muslims guide their lives and determine the appropriate and just response to those who violate its spirit. But what is central to all institutions is that they serve as a shared reference point for the whole or part of a society, whether seeking to resolve conflicts, disperse justice or define external political relations, and so on.
A plurality of institutions
Every individual, let alone every society, will hold different views on which institutions are best. In a democratic or participant social system, the people together decide which are just institutions and which best serve the public good, and institutions will either emerge or evolve from existing institutions to regulate how collective decisions are made. It is not necessarily problematic that most societies are characterized by institutions that an outside observer might consider to be in conflict. Religious, military, and civil courts might exist side by side, as might secular and religious institutions. New institutions sometimes emerge to replace old ones, and those that have the greatest staying power are those that best adapt to changing times. For example, numerous Islamist scholars have argued that one of the strengths of Islamic law is that it is just as applicable in this age of internet and global capitalism as it was 1,400 years ago. But the point to emphasize is that institutions are not fixed structures; they are dynamic processes, rules and norms, which characterize ad regulate social, economic, and political processes within every society. For a political system to be considered participant, it must include institutions that facilitate participation and insure government accountability. There is no prescription for precisely what these institutions should be, though like all nations, Yemen should seek to learn from the successes and failures of other systems. As a nation with a strong Muslim identity, it is difficult to imagine Yemen adopting a legal system that is not based primarily, even solely, on Islamic law. Yemenis and foreign observers alike will recall the passionate debate over precisely this issue, first when the constitutional referendum was proposed in 1991 (passed via a national poll) and again in 1993 when the amendments to the constitution were proposed. Unfortunately, many observers dwell on the outcome of such debates, particularly when it enables them to characterize anything Islamist as a “threat” to democracy. But what was overlooked by many in the West was that the constitution was first widely debated within parliament as well as in the press and at several seminars organized by research centers–and then subject to popular vote. For political analysis, the mechanisms by which the outcome is reached is of far more relevance in assessing the state of a participant system than is the outcome of individual instances of deliberation.
Yemeni society is characterized by a wide range of institutions, from the electoral system and the newly established Consultative Council (similar to a bicameral system’s upper house), to the tribal system and Islamic law to name but a few. Many political analysts are quick to position these systems in opposition to each other, the modern versus the traditional. With empirical evidence, this distinction falls apart.
In practice, “traditional” tribal structures are themselves “modernizing” internally, while seemingly “modern” institutions are often found to be based on long-established processes and norms. Often what is described as a process of institutionalization is merely a process of formalizing and codifying existing practices. It is the functioning and practice of institutions that merit analysis, rather than imagined battles between the traditional versus the modern.
Whither Yemeni democracy?
Having identified a wide range of institutions present in Yemen today, one will immediately notice that the institutions established as part of Yemen’s transition to democracy are among the least respected and poorly utilized institutions in country. There is no question that Yemenis widely embrace the idea of democracy and the importance of an elected government. But in practice, most have little faith that these institutions provide any real means of resolving problems they face in life or of insuring that the government is accountable to the people. As a result, Yemenis from all social strata continue to utilize the institutions they know work well, such as institutions based on patriarchy, tribalism, personal relations, and symbolic capital–in a word, “wasta.”
This conclusion should not be seen as a criticism of the Yemeni people. A citizen who has little faith in the objectivity of the judicial system and the impartiality of judges, for example, would not be wise to resort to these institutions as a just means of resolving a dispute. While this occasionally means “taking the law into one’s own hands,” more often it entails resorting to more familiar institutions, such as tribal courts.
In this environment, new institutions may function, but they do not necessarily work as intended. In Yemen, the growing number of interest groups that comprise civil society contribute to public debates and strive to shape public policy. The parliament meets regularly, as does the new consultative council, and a second round of national elections has been widely declared as “free and fair” by international monitoring groups. But few would argue that these institutions have become integral to the exercise of real power.
Thus long-term answer is that substantive political change takes time. The introduction of new institutions will certainly alter existing power structures over time, but not necessarily in the way reformers imagine. Few in Yemen anticipate a considerable decline in the power of tribal institutions, although many openly express the wish for such changes.
How Yemen’s particular mix of institutions finds equilibrium will be determined not only over time but through practice. For example, one might imagine that Parliament may settle into a role that is somewhat less influential than that of the Consultative Council, whose appointed members may be selected to represent the spectrum of power across Yemeni society, thereby giving representation to existing institutions of power (such as tribes, religious groups, and the business community, as well as the newer political parties) while establishing a new mechanism for discussing issues of common interest. Consultation among the social and political elite is not a new idea, though the institution that organizes and regulates such deliberations, in this case the Consultative Council, may be only a few months old. And the establishment of such new institutions does not necessarily signal the decline of others.
Perhaps tribal institutions will gradually decline in power, though it is more likely that they will continue to evolve to a changing social and political environment, perhaps even becoming more participant themselves. In Jordan, many of the strongest tribes organize elections to select their candidates for parliament. In fact, several of these pre-elections were, by many standards, much freer and fairer than the national elections that followed. In this way, one sees a so-called traditional institution adopting new practices, and the result cannot be characterized as a clash between the traditional and the modern. Political evolution in Yemen is more likely to develop along similar lines.
The aim of political analysis
Understanding the political evolution underway in Yemen requires that one abandon fixed notions of precisely how change “should” take place. Yemenis working toward change will certainly have an image in mind, and those objectives as well as the strategies for achieving them will certainly develop with time and experiences. But for the political analyst, the political and social landscape of Yemen cannot be judged according to progress achieved along a continuum from a traditional society to a modern one. Yemeni society has never been static, no more than a successful Yemeni democracy will result as an equally static state in the “end of history” when participatory institutions no longer evolve. This “success or failure” school of analysis cannot begin to appreciate the changes taking place within Yemeni society. Instead, broader questions concerning equality of participation, transparency in the exercise of power, and government accountability can be understood only within the context of the multiple and dynamic power structures within Yemen. The issue at hand is not the founding of participant institutions, but the actual exercise of power. Only then can one begin to appreciate the impact of the introduction of new participatory political institutions on Yemen’s political and social landscape.
Jillian Schwedler, a doctoral student in Political Science at New York University, is a research fellow at the American Institute for Yemeni Studies. She is a member of the Board of Directors of Middle East Report (MERIP) and author of Toward Civil Society in the Middle East? A Primer (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner, 1995).