Faisal Bin Shamlan, the leading opposition candidate in Yemen’s September 20 presidential elections, looks relaxed in a sarong and bare feet as he waxes poetic about the republic’s legal underpinnings.
"Our constitution is beautiful," he says. “The reunification of 1990 presented us with an extraordinary opportunity.”
But in truth, this obscures his deep pessimism about the upcoming polls.
“In the current circumstances, these elections have a 60-75 per cent chance of being free and fair enough,” says Bin Shamlan. “There are huge shortfalls in the procedures. But these elections are crucial, this is a pivotal moment for Yemen. Too much power is concentrated in the hands of the president.”
Surrounded by oil rich Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, Yemen is the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula. It is also the most democratic. Next month, Yemen will hold presidential and local elections; the sixth since the republic unified in 1990.
There has been much ado in recent years on elections from Morocco to Kuwait - but Yemen has been holding elections at all levels of government for 13 years.
The Arab world has been slow to democratise compared to many other parts of the world. Freedom House, which ranks the world’s nations according to democratic standards, says 61 per cent of Middle Eastern and North African states are “not-free”: the highest proportion of any region in the world (sub-Saharan Africa rates the next highest at 29 per cent ranked “not free”). By contrast, Yemen’s system enshrines multi-party democracy. Women are equal by law and can participate fully as voters and candidates - although women’s candidacy has to date been extremely minimal.
“The history of democracy in Yemen is good,” says Nadia al-Sakkaf, editor-in-chief and publisher of the Yemen Times. “In 1990 for the first time we had a multi-party system, many newspapers, non-government organisations. There was a real manifestation of multiple voices.”
But that’s the good news.
Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in office for 28 years, making him among the world’s top ten longest-serving presidents, joining Libya’s Muamar Gadafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Saleh survived unification, won the first presidential election in 1999, and if he wins again in September, will see 35 years in office by the end of his term.
How has he managed it? Through some democratic methods and some not. Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress, originally conceived itself as “an umbrella for all social forces”: some Yemenis say an apt description of Saleh himself. Supporters see him as bridging the nation’s diversity of tribes, former communists, Islamic conservatives and reformers. Saleh seems to have significant support in rural areas.
If Saleh enjoys some genuine popularity as a national unifier, his various manipulations have helped keep him in power. A winner-takes-all electoral system, Saleh’s use of the state’s resources for campaigning, placement of family in senior positions in the military and security apparatus, and outright - if relatively minor - electoral fraud, have all helped Saleh maintain his grip on power. “People can’t read and write and don’t know their basic rights,” says Al-Sakkaf. “They can’t conceive of someone other than Saleh.”
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