Campaign Politics and Coalition Building: the 1993 Parliamentary Elections

by Sheila Carapico
(University of Richmond)

Yemen Update 33 (1993):37-39

The Yemeni national elections of April 27, 1993 were the Arabian Peninsula's first genuine experiment with popular participation in multiparty electoral contest. International observers and press correspondents pronounced Yemen’s polling for 301 constituency-based seats in the Chamber of Deputies, involving about three-quarters of some 2.7 million registered voters and over 3700 candidates, "free and fair," although Yemeni pundits and parties exercised their freedom to criticize the process. The contest seemed to combine uniquely Yemeni tribal elements with Indian-style ruling party stability, Italianesque partisan maneuvering, and Chicagoan machine politics. Throughout, there was both competition and bargaining at local and national levels between and among President 'Ali 'Abd Allah Salih's General People's Congress(GPC), the co-ruling Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), the Islamic-tribal coalition known as the Islah Party, several pan-Arab parties, numerous local groupings, and independent candidates over the shape of the new ruling coalition. When the preliminary results were released May 1, Congress had won 122 seats, Islah came in second with62, the YSP took 57, independents had 46, the Ba'th won 7, three Nasiri parties each gained one seat, the religious-aristocratical-Huq party had two, and two remained to be decided.

The Yemenis faced a gargantuan task in constructing an electoral system from scratch. A lack of timely preparation for orderly polling forced postponement beyond the originally scheduled date of November, 1992. Thereafter, and especially after inflation-induced demonstrations in the main cities in December, 1992, the Supreme Elections Committee (SEC), headed by'Abd al-Karim al-'Arashi, worked diligently to put the process in place. In the end, most but not all of the technical aspects worked smoothly. The SEC drew the lines for 301 voting districts, each with about 47,000 population, and established processes for voter and candidate registration, rules for the 10-day pre-election campaign period, and monitoring, voting, and counting procedures. At each polling station three election officials were observed by candidates’ representatives as they sealed empty ballot boxes, counted blank ballots, and reviewed registration lists. Despite a good deal of pushing and shoving in some rural constituencies, armed guards allowed voters to enter one by one to present a registration card, have it verified, receive a ballot, write the candidate's name, deposit the ballot in the box, and have their fingers marked with indelible ink. Illiterate voters, a sizable fraction of the electorate, were entitled to choose a confidant to write a candidate’s name as a station official looked on, but critics consider this a violation of the constitutional right to a secret ballot. When stations closed, ballot boxes in each constituency were collected to a central place &emdash; often selected for the availability of an electrical generator &emdash; where counting took place in front of representatives of each party running in the district.

International election monitors, journalists, and observers were uniformly impressed. Among them were: James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute who reminded Yemeni audiences of the long road to universal suffrage and free elections in the US; Ahmad Bahabib of the American-Yemeni Friendship Association who could scarcely contain his enthusiasm; MacGuire Gibson of AIYS who found the process more open and exciting than the US presidential campaign last fall; and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Mack who said he was instructed to congratulate Yemeni people and government and to express US encouragement and support for the process. The international press, represented by Nora Bustani of the Washington Post, Dean Fisher of Time, and the English and Arabic services of Voice of America and the BBC, Japanese newspapers, Frankfurter Allgemeine, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and the Financial Times, all gave positive coverage. A pair of Dutch observers who separately visited at least ten stations in the Hodeida and Ta'izz-Ibb regions, respectively, said they were "moved" by the enthusiasm of voters and the dedication of monitors, especially female station monitors who protected "their” ballot boxes and stayed up all night to see the votes counted. Even the Jerusalem Post called the Yemeni elections a step toward Middle East peace.

But the process was not without incident, as a few individuals resorted to bribery, chicanery, and force to influence the outcome. One polling station official in Jahana, southeast of Sanaa, reported that an illiterate voter he was observing said one candidate had given him 200 riyals (a little over$4), but he preferred to vote for another. Two ballot boxes were allegedly smashed in one Ta'izz constituency, and locks tampered within another, and a soldier in Sanaa claimed he saw two boxes switched en route to the counting station. The staff of the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI), which helped organize international election monitors, said most of the dozens of such reports phoned to their offices turned out to be false. Still more grievous incidents involved the exchange of gunfire between Islah and YSP partisans in several locations including Tawwahi in Aden, Haburin Hajjah province, and Hodeida, resulting in several injuries and deaths. The Supreme Court heard ten appeals and rejected at least two dozen others.

Such incidents are a testimony to a competitive and pluralist environment. Unlike other "democratizing” systems, Yemen inherited two ruling parties from the former Yemen Arab Republic in the North (the Congress or GPC) and the People’s Democratic Republic in the South (the Socialists or YSP), who shared power during the transition period after unification in May, 1990. A third important party, the Islah (Reform), which last year attempted unsuccessfully to block a constitutional referendum, represents a religious coalition more moderate, on the whole, than its Algerian or Egyptian counterparts. Although much smaller in numbers, the Iraqi-leaning Yemeni Ba'th also wields not insubstantial influence through its charismatic leader, Mujahid Abu Shuwarib, brother-in-law to Shaykh al-Ahmar. Among some forty smaller parties formed during the transition period, fewer than half managed to recruit the legal minimum of 15 candidates to officially nominate a slate, so their members ran as independents. No party ran candidates in every constituency. With an average of ten and as many as forty candidates per constituency, the majority independents, the field was packed.

But the parties are not quite as mutually exclusive as their labels suggest. The GPC, originally an Egyptian-style amalgam of all political tendencies within President Salih's regime, contains both liberal elements and right-wing religious tendencies. The YSP is divided between old-guard Leninists and a larger number of social democrats. Islah comprises a slightly uneasy alliance of Hashid tribal leader Shaykh 'Abd Allah al-Ahmar, Wahhabi-style religious partisans under the leadership of 'Abdal-Majid al-Zindani, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Ba'th has GP Cand Islah connections but shares some policy perspectives, for instance on women's rights, with YSP. Members of all three parties ran as independents, and, in a number of cases, under other parties’ banners. Thus at a press conference at its party headquarters on April 30 the YSP announced that in addition to 57 party member selected, 13 socialist independents won with its support, and an additional 17 genuinely independent deputies-elect share its vision of the future. Some independent intellectuals calculated that Islah, which declined to tell reporters how many unofficial sympathizers they count on, actually has 30 supporters who won seats under the GPC banner, plus three independents. By this speculative count, the results would be Islah 95, GPC 92, and YSP 87.

Throughout, electoral bargaining was intense and complex. During the campaign period, members of the various parties met in semi-public qat sessions to formulate mutually acceptable policy positions. For instance, in one session hosted by the Ba'th, Abu Shuwariib and (GPC) Foreign Minister 'Abd al-Karimal-Iryani, an architect of the unity accord, were among a large group who listened as 'Abd al-Wahhab al-'Anisi, intellectual spokesman of the Islah, departed from his party's earlier stance to declare support for the constitution and the principles of democracy. At other meetings and conferences during the week, heretofore improbable allies appeared publicly to enunciate principles of representation, the rule of law, and coalition government. Behind these scenes performed publicly in part for an unprecedented Arab and international audience of journalists and observers, officers of both the major and minor parties negotiated deals and agreements about the shape of a future coalition government. For some heads of smaller parties, such as Septembrist leader and SEC member Ahmad Qirhash, a prominent role in these negotiations more than compensated for the lack of official representation in the Chamber of Deputies.

Comparable deliberations in many local constituencies also produced deals that might or might not be honored. During the campaign period over 1100 candidates from the initial 4800 withdrew from the race. While some, like independent Hamud al-Salahi in a rural district south of Ibb, expressed disgust with the barter arrangements among supposedly rival parties, others, like Minister of Education Muhammad 'Abd Allah al-Jaifi, said they bowed out "to give others a chance."

For all the bargains that were struck, and tentative promises made, the atmosphere of anticipation among both citizens and party leaders as the counting began showed clearly that the results were not entirely foregone. Apart from the ever-present apprehension lest competition erupt into civil disorder, the real cliff-hanger was the neck-and-neck race between Islah and the Socialists for second place. Whereas the Socialists, even while accusing Islah of disrupting vote-counting in constituencies like Tawwahi and Habur where returns were close, declared unconditional acceptance of SEC and Supreme Court decisions, Islah, one of whose leaders, al-'Anisi, failed to win in his Sanaa constituency, proclaimed their refusal to accept the results in the southern and eastern governorates where, they alleged, the YSP used its security forces to win an unfair majority. Other parties were also crying foul; after publishing a scathing critique, Nasiri-Unionist leader ‘Abd al-Malik al-Makhlafi, who as head of the Information Committee had been SEC's spokesperson, was replaced for the last two press conferences by GPC loyalist Sadiq Amin Abu Ra's who deflected antagonistic questions with humor and folk wisdom about sour grapes.

There was a good deal of truth in declarations by President Salih, Abu Ra's, the YSP, and IRI that the experience was a victory for the Yemeni people, a first but crucial step towards democracy, and an example for the Arab world. Political violence was isolated; power was redistributed symbolically in a way that confirmed the current presidential leadership, but without giving it a landslide mandate; some new institutions like the press conference, the candidate rally, and the published party platform were introduced into political practice; the principle of women’s participation, albeit on a rather minor scale with about 20% of the electorate, and only two out of fifty candidates successful, was affirmed; the international press declared the experiment a success; and the West recognized an Arab election in which neither the radical left nor religious fundamentalists achieved a sweep, but rather a centrist coalition took the lead. Throughout, the Yemeni print media reported freely and critically.

Notwithstanding their symbolic, even theatrical, significance, however, the parliamentary elections were but one stage in a much broader political process. A number of decisions regarding the distribution and even the definition of leadership positions remained. In the new parliament's first session, Islah leader 'Abd Allah al-Ahmar, paramount shaykh of the Hashid tribe and a past Speaker of the YAR parliament, won the speakership with 223 votes. Balloting for three other members of the Chamber leadership returned one from the Congress, one Ba'thi, and one Socialist.

A package of constitutional amendments put to the Chamber included proposals to replace the existing five-man Presidential Council, technically selected by the Chamber of Deputies, with a US-style two-term President and Vice-president, limited to two elected terms; creation of an elected upper house of parliament, a Consultative Council, with equal representation for each governorate; and elections for local administration including the Local Councils, district administrators, and governors. An Islah proposal would require all laws to conform to shar'ia.

Pending discussion of these amendments, instead of electing a new Presidential Council parliament voted to extend the term of the existing leadership team, with three Congress members and two socialists, for five months. After some wrangling, the transition period Prime Minister Haydar Abu Bakral-'Attas, a southerner and a socialist, was asked to form the new government. He appointed 15 ministers from the GPC, eight socialists, four from Islah, and Abu Shuwarib. When Islah protested that their allotment failed to reflect their parliamentary numbers two more of their members, including al-'Anisi, were invited to join the council of ministers. Only a third of the ministers were new; twenty had retained their posts. A general eight-point government program, including a renewed call for merger of the two armies, was put to parliament for a vote of confidence.

Just when bargaining and compromises seemed to have ensured a high degree of post-electoral continuity and consensus, members of parliament balked. For more than a week in late July and early August al-Ahmar pounded his gavel in avain attempt to restore order as a raucous debate raged over the proposal and the related issues of constitutional amendments, composition of the Presidential Council, and unification of the armed forces. Following presentation of an alternative program drafted by parliamentary committee, two hundred and sixty deputies demanded to address the floor, threatening to drag the debate on endlessly. Two sessions of parliament were canceled as afternoon qat sessions extending late into the evening attempted to bridge the deep rifts that developed within each of the three major party blocs: one journalist commented that instead of three blocs there were now 301.Finally the vote of confidence passed, essentially on the understanding that the substance of the debate would be carried forth to deliberations on the constitutional amendments package, which were formally put to the Chamber on August 4, the last session before an extended recess. In the meantime, lest the amendment package falter, nominations for the Presidential Council were being put forward, along with speculation about how five seats were to be divided among three ruling parties: two GPC, two YSP, and one Islah? Two GPC, one YSP, one Islah, and one independent? These pending questions promise that parliamentary debates will continue to be lively.

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