Thursday, September 21, 2006

Yemenis at the polls

By Michael J.W. Stickings

They have elections in Yemen? They do. Sort of. Which is to say, they have elections that are, well, only sort of democratic. Both a president and 301 members of the Assembly of Representatives are elected, the former for a seven-year term, the latter for six-year terms, but there is essentially one dominant party, the General People's Congress, which has both the presidency and 238 seats in the Assembly. The opposition parties are largely powerless. The largest, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, has 46 seats in the Assembly.

Yemen held its 2006 presidential election yesterday, with President Ali Abdullah Saleh running against challenger Faisal Bin Shamlan, the leader of a coalition of opposition parties called the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). Saleh has been the president of Yemen since north-south reunification in 1990. Prior to that he was the president of North Yemen from 1978 to 1990. Prior to reunification, Shamlan was a minister in the socialist government of South Yemen.

So was there any doubt as to who would come out on top? No. According to Aljazeera, which is providing regular updates, Saleh has won about 80 percent of the vote. Shamlan is well behind at about 16 percent. That's only, as of this posting, with about four percent of all ballot boxes counted, but there likely won't be much change as the counting proceeds. The vote may be "a major test of Saleh's commitment to democratic reform in Yemen," but there can't be much in the way of democracy with only one major party and a president who has been in power since 1978.

Needless to say, the various opposition parties are reporting multiple "instances of voting irregularities, including observers forced to leave several stations, forced voting, ballot boxed removal and intimidation of voters" -- that is, election fraud.

Also needless to say, there are problems with human rights in Yemen, as well as with, more specifically, women's rights and the freedom of the press. Contrary to what is implied in the picture above, women do have the vote and may run for public office. In its 2005 country report on Yemen, the U.S. State Department puts it this way: "Although women voted and held office, cultural norms rooted in tradition and religious interpretation often limited their exercise of these rights, and the number of women in government and politics did not correspond to their percentage of the population. Currently, one woman, elected in 2003, served as a member of parliament and another served in the cabinet as the minister of human rights. During the year, the Supreme Committee for Elections and Referenda established a Women's Department responsible for addressing gender equality in the electoral process." Again, there can't be much in the way of democracy given the ongoing discrimination against women that pervades Yemeni society.

For more information, the BBC covers the election here. It also has a Q&A, profiles of the candidates, some background, and a country profile -- all worth checking out.

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