Woes of Administering Elections [Archives:1998/28/Interview]

July 13 1998

Dr. Abdullah Hussain Barakat, Chairman of the Supreme Elections Commission (SEC), has a rich and varied career that extends back to 38 years. With a BA in law, an MA in general and special law, and a Ph.D. in economic and social development, Dr. Barakat, 62, had occupied several ministerial and ambassadorial posts.
He was appointed chairman of the SEC on November 1, 1997, following the re-organization of the 7-member body which is responsible for administering elections.
Ismail Al-Ghabiry of Yemen Times talked to Dr. Barakat and filed the following interview. Excerpts:
Q: Will there be any amendments to the elections and or the by-laws regulating the functioning of the SEC?
A: Law No. 27 of 1996 Concerning General Elections is one of the good laws that regulates all aspects pertaining to the election process. Nevertheless, referring back to past experiences, the introduction of a number of amendments is quite necessary for our democratic to be a truly unique one in the Arab World.
Some of the changes to the law introduced by the SEC include opening branches in different governorates, specifying a sufficient period of time between the withdrawal of a candidate and polling day, opening the ballot boxes and counting the votes at every individual polling station, instead of gathering all boxes in one center, as well as several other amendments.
The SEC was not alone in making these changes. It is also keen on giving ample opportunity for the various political parties, independent law experts and former SEC members to express their opinions and submit their recommendations, to be taken into consideration.
Q: When will the local election law be promulgated and will the actual local elections be held?
A: The local elections law is still being debated by parliament. As far as the SEC is concerned, the necessary plans are being formulated. As soon as the law is ratified by parliament, the SEC will make the necessary technical steps to implement it.
Q: Do you envisage and replacements of some SEC members with perhaps, better qualified and more independent people?
A: Paragraph C of Article 23 of the Elections Law stipulates that a member of the SEC can only be dismissed by a republican decree, and only in the case of ceasing to satisfy the conditions stipulated in Article 22 of the law and according to a final court decision.
Q: What new improvements, if any, have been introduced to the SEC since it administered the general elections of April 1997?
A: Since the re-forming of the SEC in November, 1997, we started working on re-organizing the whole outfit. We started with the administrative staff, which lacked qualified people. Cooperating with international organizations concerned with promoting democracy worldwide, training courses are often planned for SEC staff.
SEC work is now being computerized, thanks to a gift of several computers by the EU. For example, these computers will help organize comprehensive archives of documents from previous elections.
These achievements and many others are part of our patriotic duty, which is an honor to perform.
Q: Ever since the 1997 general elections, the SEC does not seem to be conducting any training courses for its staff. Why is that?
A: The SEC concentrates a lot of its efforts on training programs in order to fully prepare the staff for a successful administering of elections and the training of new staff members.
Q: What are the international organizations that provide assistance to SEC, and to what extent?
A: There are several such bodies and countries such as the EU, UN, the International Foundation for the Development of Democracy, Britain, Germany, the US and few others. The SEC is very keen on cooperating with these parties in order to help consolidate the country’s democratic experience.
Q: What preparations has the SEC made for next year’s local and presidential elections?
A: Since early in its existence, the SEC has been making intensive preparations and comprehensive plans for the presidential election of 1999, an important event in our country.
Q: What lessons has the SEC learned from the 1997 general elections?
A: Each election process conducted in Yemen or in other developing democracies has its positive and negative sides. The thing we are proud of is the fact that elections in our country are free, fair and transparent. This is attested to be all the international election monitors who that supervised Yemeni elections.
I ascertain that any shortcoming in the democratization process can only be rectified by more democracy. Since the general elections of 1993 and up to this date the democratic process has been continually refined.
Q: Have you analyzed the voter rosters at all?
A: The SEC, in cooperation with the Central Statistics Authority, analyzes the voter rosters and prepare for the registration phase, as stipulated by the Elections Law. This is essential for ascertaining the number of people who have reached the legal age, deleting the names of the dead, or re-registering those who change their residence.
Q: Is there any possibility of re-designating the constituency boundaries?
A: This is not an easy matter, as it has many constitutional and legal aspects to it.
Q: Will the political party symbols, used to help illiterate voters, remain the same?
A: The symbols submitted before the last parliamentary elections remain the same, no party has expressed any desire so far to change its symbol. All political parties have the right to choose or change their distinguishing symbols, provided they do not conflict with other parties’.
Q: How can the SEC be financially independent when it is really controlled by the government?
A: I do not agree with what you just said. The SEC is, according to the law – financially and administratively independent. It accurately and precisely implements the law that regulates its activity. The only connection it has with the government is that it submits its budget to be included within the central budget.
Q: Does the SEC intend to establish a databank?
A: This is an excellent idea, which the SEC is currently studying. Data and information on past elections are constantly being collated to form a nucleus for a comprehensive databank. We are in the process of establishing a special new department for this purpose.
Q: What has become of the contestations of some of the last election results?
A: Such rebuttals were dealt with at the time they were made, according to the law. I’d like to emphasize here that the SEC is quite committed to whatever is decided by the judiciary so the democracy can be built on sound foundations in this country.
Q: What about raising public awareness? The SEC does not seem to be doing much in this respect.
A: Raising public awareness of the democratization process is very important. The SEC’s Information and Public Relations sector is currently studying the appropriate plans, in cooperation with the relevant official bodies. Actually, the SEC has a program that will be implemented on the public and other levels to make people more aware of the necessity to vote in elections and partake of decision making.
Q: Does the SEC intend to hold workshops for voter education?
A: The SEC will organize a conference in September in Sanaa, in cooperation with the International Foundation of Elections Systems, the UN and other international organizations and figures.
The conference, in which several experts and people concerned with democracy will take part, aims to make people aware of the SEC activities and benefit from the recommendations and the expert opinion that will be expressed by the participants.
Q: Some observers allege that SEC activity is ‘seasonal,’ i.e., it is only active when an election is due soon. What do you say to that?
A: One of the proposed amendments to the law is make the SEC’s wok continuous, not only around election time. When these proposed amendments are endorsed by parliament, things will change considerably. We aim to make the SEC a permanent organization that keeps its by-laws and administrative staff when the actual members are changed.
Q: How harmonious are relations between the SEC members?
A: The SEC members work in quite a congenial atmosphere and in total harmony, which reflects positively on the SEC overall performance. There is really no need for this question because by abiding by the law and regulations, all disagreements can be resolved or avoided altogether.
Q: Does the ruling authority or the political parties interfere in the SEC’s work?
A: There is no such interference whatsoever. The SEC is completely independent. We are, nevertheless, open and listen to all opinions, suggestions and advice in order to reach the best. Meetings are often held with representatives of political parties and local and international organizations for that purpose.
Q: Has the SEC established any links with similar organizations in other countries?
A: The SEC is very keen on consolidating its contacts and links with all similar organizations in other parts of the world. We really hope to strengthen this side of our activity.
Q: How many administrators work for the SEC?
A: The SEC’s administrative staff consists of about 80 employees, with a budget of YR67 million for 1998.
Q: How much have the state and the voters spent on the last parliamentary elections?
A: According to the law, the state bears all general elections expenditure. All capabilities are put at the SEC’s disposal. The voters do not spend anything.
Q: How much will the number of eligible voters increase by in the next elections and what increase will there be in the polling stations?
A: In the 1993 elections, there were 2,271,126 registered males and 478,389 females; while, in 1997 the numbers rose to 3,364,723 and 1,272,073, respectively. More increases are expected in the number of voters, especially females.
Q: What are the main difficulties facing the SEC?
A: There are no difficulties to speak of. Operational difficulties or problems are dealt with as they arise, in cooperation with the relevant bodies.