How Yemen’s Ruling Party Secured an Electoral Landslide

Yemen’s parliamentary elections, held on April 27, 2003, might have set a higher standard for contested elections in the Arab world. Instead, post-election shenanigans and gunfire that disrupted ballot counting in key districts cast doubt on the voting process and the ruling General People’s Congress’ landslide victory.

Certain features of a representative democracy are in place in Yemen and the electorate is keen to exercise the right to select lawmakers. Although President Ali Abdallah Salih persists in identifying the military as a democratic institution, other regime spokespersons articulate a rather enlightened vision of multi-party competition in a mixed presidential-parliamentary system. Although few women ran for office, virtually everyone on the Yemeni political spectrum agrees that in principle women have the right to vote, campaign and serve in the legislature. Nationwide many thousands of poll workers, local monitors, voters, candidates, elections commissioners and police worked earnestly to make the experience a success. Moreover, with increasingly effective security control over its entire territory and having cooperated with the United States in its war on terrorism, the Yemeni government has little to fear from peaceful opposition within the House of Representatives and much to gain from free and fair elections. Salih promised the public that, within 72 hours of the closing of polls, 301 clear winners from different parties would emerge. Had this pledge held true, Salih could have had a two-thirds majority in parliament, plus enough legitimate opposition for foreign observers to believe the election results were genuine. The actual results were considerably messier.

April saw a lively multi-party campaign season. Among over 1,300 candidates for 301 seats were 297 running under the banner of the ruling General People’s Congress, 105 candidates from the leftist Yemeni Socialist Party and 185 representing the conservative Yemeni Congregation for Reform. The General People’s Congress (GPC), created in the 1980s by President Salih as an “umbrella for all social forces,” came to represent the North Yemeni political-military establishment, and was transformed into a political party after Yemeni unification in 1990. Yemen’s Socialist Party has reshaped itself since the old days of the People’s Democratic Republic (the former South Yemen) along social democratic lines. The party recently applied for membership in the Socialist International, although its ranks have dwindled in the past decade. The best organized of the three, the Reform or Islah group combines religious, rural, libertarian and economic conservatisms to appeal at the grassroots level to a wide cross-section of society. About 200 candidates ran as Arab nationalists under the Baath or one of three Nasserite parties. Some of the two or three independents on the ballot in most constituencies were affiliated with Islah or the GPC. The 301 seats represent winner-take-all parliamentary constituencies, redrawn since the last election.

Stacking the Deck

As the GPC chairs all national and local elections commissions, and also manages public airwaves, transport, jobs and services, the deck was stacked in favor of the ruling party. The GPC, whose election-time logo was the silhouette of a rearing horse, benefited from free publicity paid for with government resources. Streets were closed in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a for a GPC parade led by pairs of police stallions. The public sports field in Ghayl BaWazir, Hadramawt, hosted a Congress rally where schoolchildren, sports teams and dance troupes performed. The week before the polling witnessed much officious ribbon-cutting and cornerstone-laying for new schools and public works by governors and ministers, all glowingly covered in the official media.

Yemen TV trumpeted the upcoming elections without conveying the content of any actual campaign issues. Each party was entitled to free air time to read its platform, a dull talking-head presentation devoid of controversy. Clever get-out-the-vote skits, well-produced and well-acted with technical assistance from the UN Development Program and financing from the European Union, implored women as well as men to go to the polls and explained how to cast a ballot.

On the eve of election day, when the formal campaign period was supposedly over, a full evening of programming featured live reports from the provinces followed by a long retrospective on the president’s accomplishments in foreign affairs. Beginning and ending with the non-aligned movement, the documentary showed Salih on state visits abroad, greeting visiting monarchs and presidents, and conferring with high-level delegations. Salih was shown engaging with Third World leaders, Arab brethren, the Islamic Conference, the Palestinian cause, Japan, Europe, the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Paris Club — all before closing shots of the president standing beside his American counterparts Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. US approval, the narrator noted, is essential for good relations with international financial institutions. No direct reference was made to Yemen’s former friend Iraq or US wars in that country, except a fleeting image of the Yemeni delegate to the UN Security Council who fell afoul of the first Bush administration by declining to support the resolution authorizing the 1990-1991 Gulf war.

The ruling party’s most compelling campaign message was quintessential pork-barrel politics: if you want better community services, a civil service job or government contracts, only the ruling party can deliver. This message, reiterated by local GPC campaigners who spoke with authority as officials and officers, resonated in the small towns and rural areas that still lack potable water, round-the-clock electricity, paved streets and adequate educational facilities. Some citizens heard it as a threat to withhold funds from constituencies and even voting precincts that failed to support the president’s party, or a promise of favors distributed via the GPC’s winning candidates. While Islah and the Socialists tapped into voter sentiments with appeals for greater honesty in governance and policies to alleviate poverty, self-interested voters might well cast their vote for the horse.

Concerted Challenge

Acknowledging long odds in 2003, and angered by what they saw as irregularities in voter and candidate registration, opposition parties determined to cooperate. The Socialists, marginalized by the temporary right-wing GPC-Islah alliance that dominated national politics in the mid-1990s, boycotted the 1997 parliamentary elections and urged voters to follow suit. The right-wing coalition fell apart after the GPC sweep that netted 223 seats in 1997, however, leaving Islah with only 63 including some surrogates among the independents. Islah cried foul. While the GPC majority in the House of Representatives easily rubber-stamped any government proposal including an extension of its own parliamentary term of office from four to five years, and even though its party chairman, the venerable Abdallah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, retained leadership of the House, Islah came to represent the parliamentary voice of opposition.

After much debate and negotiation, during the second half of 2003 the conservative Islah and the progressive Socialists, along with four smaller parties, formed a Joint Meeting Group wherein they agreed not to challenge one another directly. Specifically, Islah promised to withhold from running candidates in 30 districts where the YSP’s prospects were better, and the YSP (recognizing its relative weakness) agreed not to campaign in 130 constituencies where Islah stood a good chance. For all their ideological polarization, then, progressives and conservatives within the Joint Meeting Group agreed to concentrate on challenging the GPC. The intensity and persistence of their negotiations and many district-level campaigns indicated cautious confidence that constituencies could be won from the ruling party.

Improvements in Process

Some aspects of the balloting process had been improved since 1997. At considerable expense, voters were registered anew, photo registry books were produced and a more user-friendly, multi-colored ballot unique to each constituency was designed, printed and distributed. The network of local monitors was expanded and communications improved. Most importantly, whereas in previous elections precinct ballot boxes were forwarded to constituency centers for counting, this time each box was to be counted in front of about six or eight precinct elections commissioners and candidate representatives in each voting center, and the precinct totals forwarded to the constituency center for tallying and reporting. Like the ballot boxes themselves, the counting process was thus made more transparent.

On April 27, the voting and, initially, the counting went rather smoothly, some technical snafus and political irregularities notwithstanding. Some 90 to 100 international and 30,000 Yemeni monitors, watching 5,620 polling stations nationwide, noted infractions such as mismatched voter registration numbers, underage voters, printer imperfections on ballots, payoffs to voters, payments to or substitution of candidates’ observers, overactive scrutiny by soldiers policing voting precincts and public buses festooned with GPC banners delivering voters to polling stations. Numerous and disturbing, but still relatively minor, infractions did not seem of a sufficient magnitude decisively to swing the outcome of the vote. In some instances, for example, after noticing a faint mark by the GPC logo on ballots, precinct commissions met and resolved how to deal with the problem. Turnout was good, voting was for the most part orderly and women were nearly half the electorate. By 8:00 or 9:00 that evening, polls had been closed for a couple of hours and in most, if not quite all, voting stations counting had begun, each ballot viewed and tallied by a committee.

Hotly Contested Constituencies

Early returns on April 28 gave the ruling party over 200 seats, enough to pass any legislative vote. The disheartened Socialists claimed only a handful. Islah had been declared the winner in a couple dozen districts, including eight in the heart of Sana’a, one of which was the president’s own voting district. International delegations from the UN Development Program and the National Democratic Institute issued preliminary reports indicating many areas of improvement since 1997 and other areas where significant flaws were noted. The 72-hour deadline within which all results were by law to have been tallied passed, however, without a resolution in some two dozen hotly contested constituencies. By May 2, when Salih set a date for the new parliament to meet, his party had won in 214 constituencies — a two-thirds majority although ten seats short of the majority in the last House. The Socialists took seven; small parties and independents won about twenty; forty had gone to Islah.

Counting had been interrupted and results were still unknown in about 21 constituencies, mostly in the cities of Sana’a, Aden, Ta’izz and Ibb, with a few in rural districts north and east of the capital. Violence was reported in disputed constituencies including the dense Tawahi neighborhood of Aden and the Bani Harith district on the outskirts of Sana’a. Around the country several people were shot, and there were unverified reports of as many as 14 deaths, in exchanges of fire between uniformed forces and opposition candidates’ supporters. In contrast to the non-stop pre-election coverage, after the voting, programming on Yemen’s national television station returned to stiff dancers in mock-Yemeni costumes performing stylized folkloric jigs, interspersed with video footage of destruction and casualties in Iraq.

Circumstantial evidence, logic and eyewitness accounts all pointed to security forces or their agents as instigators of disturbances in constituencies where an opposition candidate, usually but not necessarily from Islah, was poised to win. At the least, however, the government failed to secure the counting process in a timely fashion. With 87,000 uniformed forces deployed to guard each polling station gate and polling room door, the government was responsible for the security of vote-counting. Once polls closed, armed security forces outnumbered civilian officials and monitors in every precinct facility. Witnesses heard shots from within guarded compounds, as if an incident were being engineered. Military checkpoints prevented either local citizens or foreign observers from nearing contested counting centers days afterward. The complaints coming to international and Yemeni observer groups emanated mainly from the opposition, not the government. While regime spokespersons blamed fanatics and tribesmen for upsetting the counting process, which may be true in some cases, overall it seemed the GPC had both the means and the motivation to hold the outcome in abeyance.

Open to Interpretation

When all but three constituencies had reported, the GPC stood at 225 seats, Islah had taken 46 and the Socialists held at seven. Rumor had it that GPC and Islah leaderships had negotiated the distribution of nearly 20 disputed seats between them. Nasserites took three constituencies and the Baath two, with 16 seats going to independents, half of whom were said to lean towards Islah. Incumbents faired rather poorly, with turnover in a significant number of districts. Both the long time speaker of the House, Abdallah al-Ahmar of Islah, and the outgoing prime minister, Abd al-Qadir Bajamal, retained their posts when the new parliament and cabinet convened. Small transitions in individual constituencies notwithstanding, at the national level very little had changed.

The outcome of the third round of parliamentary elections is thus open to interpretation. Yemen might be an emerging Arab democracy, gradually but steadily improving on the electoral process. Alternatively, it could be on the road to becoming a one-party quasi-democracy, like Egypt, wherein opposition parties are allowed to compete but not to win.

Sheila Carapico teaches political science at the University of Richmond. She is grateful to the National Democratic Institute and the Government of Yemen for enabling her to observe the elections. The views expressed here are her own. Above article first appeared in Middle East Report Online and republished here with permission.