What the GPC and opposition think of the elections? [Archives:2006/970/Opinion]

August 7 2006

By: Mohammed Al-Qadhi
([email protected])

The heated elections debate and media barrage between the ruling General People's Congress (GPC) and the opposition started vigorously last week and it demonstrates the sophistication of the coming weeks. This momentum is expected to accelerate in the course of time approaching the voting day on Sept. 20. But the start is not promising. The two sides agreed in their principles of agreement signed last June to work towards a fair and free election which requires respect of media campaigns rules. This seems unlikely to take place if we scrutinize the media discourse of the two sides during last week.

The opposition started talking about oil revenues, one of the main issues that concern the public. But the backlash by the ruling party was severe and the opposition candidate Faisal Bin Shamlan was physically hit. Prior to that, a member of the ruling party warned of the potential fall of the country into civil war and disorder if Bin Shamlan wins. Such a media discourse helps to frighten ordinary citizens and influence their voting decision.

For this reason, the role of the media in boosting election fairness and transparency is pivotal. Last Tuesday I attended a workshop on monitoring media performance during elections. The event was organized by the Danish International Media Support and Human Rights Information and Training Center. The monitoring program targets state and independent media for the organizers and conceded it is difficult to monitor the party newspapers which are unfortunately obliged to political affiliations rather than professionalism.

In fact, it is the state broadcast media which matters here because of its wide outreach and ability to influence the voters. I know it is very difficult to enforce the objectivity, balance and neutrality of these outlets in reporting elections, something which the elections commission member Abdu Al-Janadi acknowledged. But this time the neutrality of the state media has been included as one of the issues where the GPC and the opposition agreed. This agreement of principles which received attention from the diplomatic community in Sana'a will be used as an important criterion to evaluate the overall election process. Therefore, keeping an eye on the performance of the state-funded media in particular is now very significant.

I guess you guys agree with me that there will be no meaning for the opposition candidate to challenge President Ali Abdullah Saleh if he is not able to strike major issues of concerns to the people without fear and by using the state media. Bin Shamlan should be vocal in discussing his messages to the masses as competition entails he freely, like his competitor President Saleh, can use the media available.

The ruling party should not expect to have a challenger, whose role is just to testify the existence of democracy, blessing the landslide victory of Saleh and then ending the challenger's role. Saleh should accept the rules of the game and complacently expect any criticism that his reign should go through. It is the right of the opposition to question the oil revenues and any other issue and then GPC can freely refute. This approach is not a taboo. There should not be any taboo in discussing the people's concerns. I also guess it is in favor of Saleh to win with, say, 60-70 percent rather than cracking majority of 90 percent. This change is not humiliating to his legacy, but will be a victory for Yemen's democracy too.

The opposition, on its turn, should not be reluctant or shy in addressing issues. It has decided to compete and should thus consider the consequences of such a decision. It has to fight for its right to have a fair and free race, regardless of the outcome. I know it is demanding and challenging but they have accepted it; it helps increase Yemen's democratization drive at large.

I understand we are still crawling towards democracy and that there are a lot of considerations and limitations that should be taken into account. Yet, this does not mean it should not limit itself to this function, without having ambition to take this experience to the forefront. The easy approach should not be the perspective of the two players. In short, our democracy will not go ahead, unless serious and courageous decisions are made by both the GPC and the opposition. It is their responsibility to decide what direction our democracy is going to take. In short, if this election does not bring about any visible change, at least in the mind set of the voters and their awareness of the possibility of change, it will be frustrating and fruitless exercise in democracy.

Mohammed Al-Qadhi is a Yemeni journalist and columnist.