What is to be done ) now? [Archives:2006/945/Opinion]

May 11 2006

Robert Burrowes
For at least three millennia before and nearly a century since Vladimir Lenin wrote his book What Is to Be Done?, concerned people have continuously asked this question of their politics and political systems. Lenin's question is being asked in Yemen today, increasingly with a sense of urgency. For example, the new program of the coalition of opposition parties, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), asserts that the political crisis facing Yemen requires a major constitutional change, the replacement of the present presidential system with a parliamentary one. (Indeed, a more recent suggestion from a citizen calls for the now discredited presidential system to be discarded in favor of a constitutional monarchy. In mid-March, a symposium held by Women Journalists without Constraints severely criticized the present political regime and called for a peaceful transfer of power) indeed, that was the title of the symposium,

Why these growing expressions of political concern? It seems that many Yemenis have concluded that Yemen's economy and society are in or close to a serious crisis, and that the regime of President Ali Abdullah Salih and his General People's Congress (GPC) has demonstrated since the late 1990s that it lacks the will and capacity to quickly adopt and implement the major economic and political reforms required to end the growing crisis. Despite some success in the mid-1990s with some of the IMF/World Bank reforms prescribed to address the economic problems that emerged in the early 1990s, the Salih regime since then has failed to do what has to be done)e.g., stop rampant corruption, reform the bureaucracy and establish the rule of law through the courts)in order to attract needed investment, create many jobs, and provide education, medical care and other social services. Those individuals and groups who dominate the regime do not want a modern state and refuse to take the actions that would limit their ability to use the weak state they use for their personal enrichment. Alarmed Yemenis fear that, without major reform now, the crisis will strip the political system and state of support and legitimacy and that Yemen will quickly descend into anarchy (Somalia), civil war (Lebanon) or revolution (Taliban's Afghanistan).

So, what is to be done)now?

Although the call for “a peaceful transfer of power” should remain the long-term goal, this does not seem possible over the short-term. Yemen worsening economic and social crisis)and the political collapse that will follow if major reforms are not soon implemented)will not wait until a peaceful transfer of power becomes a real possibility. The more immediate goal must be one that can be largely realized by, say, 2010, if not sooner.

What should that goal be? It should be the creation and demonstration of a credible opposition to)and possible credible partner of)the current regime, an opposition and possible partner that is formidable, responsible, and committed to the major reforms required to restore the viability of Yemen.

The JMP has been moving in this direction over the past couple of years, and especially in the past few months. This process of forging a formidable opposition)a unified opposition)must continue, but at a faster pace.

The political landscape on which the JMP must demonstrate that it is formidable)and therefore must be taken seriously by the regime)includes the presidential and local council elections this year, in September, and the parliamentary elections in 2009. To a large extent, it will be the performance of the JMP in these elections)and during the months before this year's elections and the more than two years between these elections and the parliamentary ones)that will determine whether the regime can be persuaded or pressured to adopt the needed reforms.

The parties in the JMP should try to select and close ranks behind a credible presidential candidate, but time is running out and this may be beyond capacity of parties that are still learning how to cooperate and act in a unified way. To get a good candidate selected and to wage a good campaign are difficult tasks. Still, the JMP should try.

Whether or not a credible candidate can be found and make a good showing against the likely candidate of the GPC, President Salih, the presidential election should not be allowed to detract from the local council elections which offer the JMP a better chance to do well and to demonstrate that it is becoming a force to be reckoned with in Yemeni politics. In brief, the JMP should focus most attention on the local council elections between now and September.

Why focus on the local council elections? And how should the JMP approach them? The parties in the JMP)especially Islah and the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP))are strong in different parts of the country and in different electoral districts. For example, the YSP still has support in the former South Yemen, support that today would probably be increased there by a protest vote against the ruling party, the GPC. Similarly, Islah has demonstrated surprising support in the cities of the north and in the regions of Taiz, Ibb and the Hadhramawt. A good showing by these parties in their areas of strength would indicate that, indeed, a formidable opposition has emerged)and had to be listened to by the regime.

Islah, the YSP and the other parties in the JMP have to show their new-found strength through what Yemenis call “coordination,” the political practice the major political parties used with some success in all of the parliamentary elections beginning in 1993. (Under “coordination,” “Party A” agrees not to put up a candidate in districts where “Party B” is strongest if “Party B” agrees not to run a candidate in districts where “Party A” is strongest.) In the case of the local council elections in 2006, JMP parties must agree among themselves not to run candidates against each other in those electoral districts where the strongest JMP party has a good chance of beating the GPC candidates.

This will greatly test the capacity of the JMP parties to cooperate and trust each other, and the GPC will try its best to induce the JMP parties not to coordinate or to break or cheat on agreements to coordinate. But if the JMP parties can coordinate in the local council elections, they will be able to maximize JMP success in those elections)and to show just how formidable the opposition is to the president and his party.

There will, of course, be electoral fraud, and this is sure to lessen the JMP's show of strength. Accordingly, the JMP must, in addition to trying to win local council elections, make a big effort to document the fraud in these elections. To this end, it must place emphasis on the number and quality of election monitors, Yemeni and foreign. If fraud is documented in a convincing way, the JMP will be able to say that it won a large number of local council elections despite this record of fraud. (Luckily, after the flagrant fraud in the recent Rayma by-election, the community of international monitors is less likely to close its eyes and judge the elections to be “free and fair.”)

The better the JMP does in the presidential, and especially in the local council elections in 2006, the better it will be positioned to begin the long march to a strong, convincing show of strength in the parliamentary elections in 2009. If the 2006 and 2009 elections convincingly demonstrate that the JMP is a credible and formidable opponent)and possible partner)of the present regime, then the likelihood of the adoption of the much-needed reforms will be greatly increased. With that, the chance for the “peaceful transfer of power” in the near future will also be greatly increased.

This is what needs to be done)now.

Prof. Robert Burrowes is lecturer in the Jackson School of International Studies. He is an expert on the Middle East in general and a specialist on Yemen.