This is an OPINION page. Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! The Future of Party Politics in Yemen [Archives:1998/07/Focus]
Dr. Fouad Abduljaleel Al-Salahi, Dept. of Sociology, Sanaa University
To adopt an objective and scientific method in assessing the future of party politics in Yemen, a panoramic view must be taken into consideration to reflect the changes that have characterized the general and constitutional context of political party formation. This was closely associated with the declaration of Yemeni unity in 1990, which was the first courageous step to rectify the development of the Yemeni state. The states of secessionism and autocracy were abolished.
The divided states were characterized by instability, the failure of their development plans, and internal political squabbles. They were also states that constantly generated political, economic and social crises. There had to be a way out in the form of a qualitative leap to at least alleviate all the problems that plagued the former two states. The only positive alternative was to unify the two states and start a comprehensive process of democratization.
In addition to all of that, the world was then witnessing the demise of the totalitarian regimes, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall. This gave an historical opportunity for many societies to move towards democracy, and establish regimes based on political participation. In such states, individuals and groups are given the chance to express themselves within modern civil institutions, forming the civil society that was hitherto obscured by totalitarian regimes. Therefore, in view of the local, regional, and international developments, the declaration of unity and democratization in Yemen was a logical response and an informed decision by the ‘engineers’ of unification.
It must be noted, however, that political pluralism is not something new to Yemen. There were many political parties with diverging ideologies, especially in Aden before independence. Even within the northern republican state (1962-1990), political parties existed despite the fact that they were constitutionally banned. These were active parties, with which all governments were keen to hold a dialogue and take into consideration in all political balances.
So the new development here is that political plurality and opposition is now legally recognized and accepted. This is included in the constitution, and relevant laws were introduced to guarantee and regulate pluralism: laws of elections, political parties, and the press. Despite some criticism of these new laws, they remain a first practical step towards forming an establishmentarian state that transcends individual loyalty to a more public one. This step has bestowed a new legitimacy to the rulers who started to govern with a more open and democratic mentality.
The adherence of the ruling elite to democratization was re-enforced by holding the last parliamentary elections on their set date with the participation of all political parties and organizations as well as independent candidates. Also, these elections witnessed a marked increase in the number of eligible voters, male and female, who took part and reacted positively with the process. However, the last parliamentary elections have uncovered the important role played by prominent figures in society and their tribal allegiances, as opposed to their partisan affiliations. This can, of course, be attributed to the generally traditional social and cultural background, which is still plays an influential role in the modernization process in Yemen.
Political plurality in Yemen is still in need of a lot of support and continuous re-assessment by the social activists who are closely associated with these parties. An agreement must be concluded between all political parties and organizations to honor and respect the national fixed principles in order to establish two dimensions. The first dimension is to disseminate the values of democracy and its civic culture which calls for liberty, equality, plurality, and tolerance. The second dimension is represented by expanding the social base that practices democracy in its broader concept. This is a horizontal expansion characterized by the increase in partisan numbers and voter participation. Vertically, there should exist a peaceful transference of authority, whether inside the political parties themselves, on the local administration level, or of the state and government authority.
Such transformations require a lot of time, effort and a qualitative change in general culture and social attitudes. The logical instituting of such a change must start now with clear and organized steps that are liable to create a legal and establishmentarian base, within which political plurality can be practiced. Both these concepts – a legal framework and political plurality – are essential for building a modern state and a developed society.
The goal of constituting a modern state necessitates transcending the traditional establishments and their associated cultural systems, which are closely connected with a past mentality and an old production style. An active role by the political parties is required to inject the values of modernity and its establishments to replace those of the old decaying system. One of the major functions of political parties is to develop society, not to further personal political interests as is sometimes witnessed. A modern model must be supported by the political parties in establishments and in attitude.
Thus, political plurality in Yemen has become, after seven years of unity, a social and political reality that can no longer be abandoned. Discarding this reality has serious consequences on the future of the state and the society. Moreover, political plurality in Yemen is now strongly supported by foreign democracies, which makes the ruling elite internationally responsible since foreign aid and assistance are now closely subject to the progress in the process of democratization. Since democracy does not provide a magic solution for all society’s problems, finding a solution for these problems can only be done through more democracy and recognizing the legitimacy of the other parties. Therefore, expanding the opportunities for constructive dialogue and cooperation among the various sides of the political game will very likely create wholesome relationships between the two active sides in society: the political side, represented by the state, and the civil side as represented by parties, trade unions, etc.
Such healthy relationships will constitute a suitable framework of the stability needed to achieve development and economic growth and guarantee a certain level of social justice to protect the citizens’ dignity. The modern Yemeni state cannot have the necessary legitimacy without the agreement of the civic society with all its establishments and its active participation in implementing the state’s tasks.
The Yemeni opposition parties, which are part of the overall political system, must play active roles in entrenching the democratic process and consolidating the concepts of political plurality among the people. This can be done through disseminating a political culture that strongly calls for equality, liberty, political plurality, and tolerance. Opposition parties in Yemen, in their present state, are seemingly unable to activate their political and cultural roles due to weaknesses in their organizational structures and lack of communication with the people. Some opposition parties in Yemen are plagued by conflicts within its ranks or among its various factions. This can be ascribed to the lack of democratic practices within the parties themselves and the appearance of various power centers that have traditional tribal allegiances, not modern civil relations.
In addition to the ruling elite having to support political plurality, the opposition parties themselves also have to support the democratization process by more active means. They have to start with renewing their political and cultural ideologies and modernizing their means of communication with the masses. They must also establish more democratic relations within each party and disseminate a civil culture that supports political plurality. Moreover, all opposition parties must present to the people their ability to understand and positively react with the regional and international changes and their effect on the future of the democratic process in Yemen.
Thus, the future of political plurality in Yemen is subject to the following considerations: 1- The ruling elite must continue to support the process of democratization and protect its essential constitutional and legal framework. 2- The political plurality base must be expanded through more participation in local and parliamentary elections and widening the political party membership for both males and females. 3- The economic problem must be solved by creating a balance between wages and the overall cost of living to guarantee a fair standard of living for most of society. 4- A suitable political culture must be founded to facilitate the democratic transformation. 5- By practicing democracy within their own parties, leading partisans will provide positive establishmentarian and attitudinal models for the rest of society. 6- A modern state must be established on the basis of law and civic establishments, as opposed to traditional individual and tribal allegiances. This is bound to strengthen the public’s loyalty to the state. 7- Since the practicing of democracy is like a game in the political field, such a game must be played according to its rules by all the parties concerned. Elections and the ballot box become the criteria for the popularity of any party or organization. 8- Transformation to political plurality requires changes in the state’s apparatuses and systems in order to support this transformation. The judicial system, for instance, must be independent as it is the adjudicator in the conflicts that are likely to arise among the various political parties. School curricula must be altered to include new social and cultural values closely associated unity and democracy. The new generations must be taught to practice the values of liberty, equality, justice, and tolerance in all activities in all aspect of life. This is liable to create responsible social activists who work towards developing the state and the society. 9- The ruling party and opposition parties can be considered as two faces for the same coin. Therefore, dialogue and cooperation opportunities must be increased and more awareness of the importance of the supreme national interests must be created People will never feel the value of any goal or practice without them being major participants in it. 10- To protect the liberal political system created by the unified state, political and economic establishments must be built in accordance with a rational, modernizing view. Such a view will have to take account of the developments in neighboring countries and their progress.