The Election Yemen Was Supposed to Have

by Gregory Johnsen | published October 3, 2006

For background on the Yemeni presidential campaign, see Gregory D. Johnsen, “Salih’s Road to Reelection,” Middle East Report Online, January 13, 2006.

For background on Yemen’s resource woes, see Sarah Phillips, “Foreboding About the Future in Yemen,” Middle East Report Online, April 3, 2006.

The “90 percent presidency” in Yemen is examined in Jillian Schwedler and Laryssa Chomiak, “And the Winner Is…: Authoritarian Elections in the Arab World,” Middle East Report 238 (Spring 2006). Click to order the issue.

It was supposed to be the election that changed everything. The “90 percent presidency,” wherein the incumbent of 28 years won successive terms in office by laughably large margins, would be relegated to the past. Instead, a more credible accounting of the popular will would prove to Western governments and institutions that Yemen was capable of holding a vote that was both fiercely contested and fair. That Yemen’s presidential election on September 20 would also leave the status quo firmly in place was the unspoken caveat.

The dissonance between these two expectations -- that there would be a genuinely competitive contest that was nonetheless certain to renew the mandate of President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih -- allowed observers to see what they wanted to see in the election results. If they wanted to see progress, they saw it in the huge increase from past campaigns in the tallies of opposition candidates. If they wanted to see a stalled democracy slipping back into dictatorship, they saw it in the ineluctable fact that Salih won another seven years in power. Yemen’s presidential election was both the election it was supposed to be and the election the government wanted it to be.

The September 20 balloting provided Salih with a resounding victory, while at the same time demonstrating that Yemen had a strong and independent opposition. In many ways, this was the best-case scenario, both for the government and for its Western counterparts. The outcome solidified Salih’s position domestically and internationally, while giving foreign governments and institutions the political cover they need -- a “democratically elected” leader -- to proceed undisturbed in their dealings with the Yemeni regime.

When the official results of the election were announced on September 23, Salih weighed in at 77.17 percent of the vote, while his main challenger, Faysal bin Shamlan, received 21.82 percent of the roughly six million votes cast. These numbers were down from an early projection, announced on September 21 by the al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyya satellite channels, which had Salih winning 82 percent of the vote to bin Shamlan’s 16 percent.

The opposition Joint Meeting Party (JMP) had rejected the initial count, threatening to call for large street demonstrations to protest alleged voter manipulation and fraud. The 5 percent drop in support for Salih in the official voting results did little to satisfy the JMP. Late in the evening of September 23, just after the official totals had been released, the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat reported that the JMP claimed that Salih had actually received only 68.86 percent of the vote. The next day, Salih nodded to the opposition’s claims as he declared the count valid, admitting that mistakes had been made, but insisting that the election was fair -- and the outcome final.

All that was left was for bin Shamlan to concede, which he did on September 26, telling reporters that he accepted the results “as a reality.” The next day, Salih was sworn in for what the Yemeni constitution says must be his final term in office. For Yemenis, this ceremony marked the end of an exciting and (at times) truly passionate campaign that began in July 2005, when Salih announced he would not run for another term (a decision he eventually reversed). But, in the end, the government got everything it wanted: a viable election certified by observers from the European Union and the perception that the opposition had been given every opportunity to compete without hindrance.

Even the JMP’s threats and temporary refusal to accept the results helped to strengthen the government’s case by demonstrating the opposition’s independence. Salih was always going to win the election; that was never in doubt. But that is not to say that the election was merely for show. September 20 was more an opportunity for the government tacitly to acknowledge its past mistakes with promises of reform, while not (yet) being held accountable for those mistakes at the ballot box. In short, it was the logical precursor to a real election.

Walking Back a Pledge

The election was never going to be the freewheeling affair that Salih had seemed to call for 14 months earlier, when he announced that he would not seek reelection and that the various parties should nominate “patriotic and educated” Yemeni “young blood” to succeed him. Events quickly unmasked the speech containing this bombshell as a piece of political theater designed to deflect criticism over a partial lifting of fuel subsidies that was announced two days later. But once Salih had let the genie of political participation out of the bottle, he was never quite able to put it back in.

Few in Yemen were even thinking about the possibility of an open election in July 2005, but Salih’s speech changed all that. Over the course of the summer and winter, a number of potential candidates declared their interest in mounting a challenge to the man who had ruled unified Yemen since 1990 and, before that, North Yemen since 1978.

Salih commenced a pattern of ambiguous statements, never fully recanting his promise not to run, and even reaffirming it in a February 2006 interview with al-Hayat. “I have made clear, in my speech and in more than one interview, that ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih will not put himself forward for another presidential term,” he said. But he was also adept at dropping hints, subtle and otherwise, that he might be persuaded to run again if pressed. The most obvious of these signals came in December 2005, when he conditionally accepted his General People’s Congress (GPC) party’s nomination.

The speculation over Salih’s intentions was settled during the last week of June 2006, when the GPC held a conference to announce its candidate. The conference was scheduled to last two days, but it stretched into a third after Salih refused the nomination on the first day. Schools and government offices were closed for the next two days as Yemenis took to the streets in what official newspapers labeled a “spontaneous” demonstration of support for the sitting president. Opposition candidates grumbled about alleged ruling party payouts to the demonstrators, and civil servants were required to attend, but for most, demonstrating in support of the president was a reflex. The drama, which was rather poorly stage-managed, came to an end mid-morning on the third day when Salih announced to a cheering crowd of thousands in a prominent square in the capital of Sanaa that he had been convinced to run for one more term.

Salih’s supporters marched through town in what amounted to a victory parade, as if the election had been decided before a single vote was cast. The parade, like the rest of the demonstrations, was directed from behind the scenes. All of the trucks and minibuses that transported celebrants in this “spontaneous” outpouring of emotion were labeled with handwritten numbers and names of governorates chalked in the corner of the windshield, indicating the place of the vehicle on an official roster of participants in the parade.

By this time, the field of candidates had already grown to 64. But a few days later, on July 8, when applications for presidential candidacy were due to Parliament, the field had been whittled down to 46, thanks largely to Salih’s reversal of his pledge. The list of candidates submitting applications included Rashida al-Qayli, the field’s only female candidate and an Islamist activist and writer, as well as ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Baydhani, the former vice president of North Yemen. The two houses of Parliament -- the popularly elected, 301-seat Deputy Council and the appointed, 111-seat Consultative Council -- eventually gave a passing vote, which according to the constitution is a minimum of 10 percent, to five of the candidates, including Salih.

The Opposition’s Young Blood

Salih’s stiffest opposition was bound to come from the JMP, an eclectic mix of five political parties dominated by the Yemeni Socialist Party and Islah, itself an amalgam of Islamist movements, tribesmen and merchants. After a few false starts, the grouping eventually settled on Faysal bin Shamlan, 72, a former oil minister. Eight years older than Salih, bin Shamlan seemed an odd choice for the sought-after infusion of “young blood.” But finding well-qualified candidates eager to square off against Salih proved difficult, and younger and more ambitious figures were especially reluctant, being more concerned with their futures than with the present. Moreover, bin Shamlan had something few other public figures had: undeniable honesty. He was untainted by Yemen’s rampant corruption.

At summertime qat chews around Sanaa it was common to hear even bin Shamlan’s opponents comment on his impeccable record. His supporters would hasten to concur that first, bin Shamlan was extremely honest, and that second, he would inevitably lose the election to Salih. For all his honesty -- a profile in the Yemen Times listed as one of his accomplishments his return of a car to the Ministry of Oil after he resigned his post -- he never became a charismatic figure that different segments of Yemeni society were able to rally around. For too many, he was more a model citizen and a pillar of virtue than he was a leader.

Bin Shamlan’s lack of popular support became apparent when Sheikh ‘Abdallah al-Ahmar, the aging leader of Islah and the speaker of Parliament, endorsed Salih despite the fact that his party was behind the challenger. As always in Yemen, it is important to remember that, while political parties are not purely ornamental, behind-the-scenes alliances of tribe and kinship mean much more than party loyalty. These backroom considerations help to explain al-Ahmar’s stance. Salih was also able to gain the support of some of the more salafi members of Islah, such as Sheikh ‘Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, the head of Islah’s consultative council and, according to the US government, a “specially designated global terrorist.”

The culture of corruption that has characterized Yemen for so long helped to derail some early campaigns, as upstart candidates did not have the means to buy support with promises of future jobs and kickbacks. Salih’s campaign, with the weight of the government behind it, faced no such constraints and, early in the summer, word began to leak out about the makeup of his post-election cabinet.

Fed Up

Local frustration with unprecedented levels of corruption is one of the main reasons why bin Shamlan was able to win such a large percentage of the vote. Bin Shamlan’s campaign as the “anti-corruption candidate” lent a domestic bookend to the international pressure Salih had been facing since 2005. In November 2005, during a trip to Washington, the president was told that both the US and the World Bank were cutting aid to Yemen, due largely to lack of transparency and accountability in how the funds are spent. Salih, who had considered himself a key ally in the war on terror, was shocked that this service did not trump his negligence on corruption.

He has since delivered a number of anti-corruption speeches, and the government has erected a thicket of billboards that proclaim in various and sundry pithy phrases that corruption is anathema to Yemen and that the president will not tolerate it. The billboards, their slogans often couched in religious rhetoric to underscore their seriousness, greet visitors as soon as they arrive at the airport. But despite the campaign, and despite Salih’s vow in his acceptance speech to “eliminate all those who use authority for personal gain,” little seems to have changed.

Many Yemenis are exasperated by the staggering array of bureaucratic hurdles and petty bribe demands they have to navigate on a daily basis. Their frustration was captured beautifully by Fahd al-Qarni, a Yemeni comedian, in a cassette tape he released over the summer. The cassette, “Shab‘in,” or (loosely) “Fed Up,” was an instant hit. Its nine tracks are a catchy mixture of songs and skits, all of which poke fun at the regime, specifically Salih, and the corruption that has become a part of ordinary life. Al-Qarni’s jibes announce what everyone thinks, but few say in public: officials of all levels have gorged themselves at the expense of the country. In one of the most damning vignettes, a man known only as “the boss” -- who is obviously supposed to represent Salih -- asks his employees how they became so corrupt. “We learned it from you,” they reply. 

Not surprisingly, the tape was banned, and numerous copies were confiscated. Al-Sahwa, the Islah party newspaper, reported in mid-July that government soldiers had arrested a number of vendors in Sanaa who were selling the tape. Despite these preventative measures, the tape was still widely available, and most Yemenis were intimately familiar with its message.

The tape, along with those of Muhammad al-Adhra‘i, another local comic, pushed the boundaries of political expression in Yemen. Al-Adhra‘i was even arrested for a few days in June over the content of one of his recordings. In an interview with the Yemen Times after his release, he showed how he has been successful at mocking the regime, inserting tongue in cheek to answer a question about how he “found” his time in prison: “Prison is gloomy. However, the prison was clean and I was detained for three days. It was a good chance for me to rest as I had been working continually at parties. God sent those good people to snatch me from my tiresome job.”

The comedic work of al-Adhra‘i, which is subsidized by an opposition party, as well as that of al-Qarni, did as much to push Salih toward promises of reform as did bin Shamlan’s campaign. In addition to these and international pressures, Salih was also driven to talk of change by the economic difficulties and resource shortages that Yemen will face in the coming years. Within the decade, Yemen will run out of both oil and water.

Salih’s Last Stand

The looming crises were brought into the open on September 15, five days before the election, when Yemeni security forces foiled two near simultaneous suicide attacks on oil facilities. Oil exports make up 70 percent of the national budget. The loss of this revenue will be catastrophic for a country where, according to the World Bank, 42 percent of the population already lives below the poverty line.

The lack of diversity in the Yemeni economy is one of the reasons why oil facilities make such tempting targets. The September 15 attacks could have been disastrous for the stability of the country had they been successful. A chaotic, unstable Yemen undoubtedly works to the benefit of al-Qaeda, and commentators pointed to al-Qaeda as the likely perpetrators of the attacks, citing the September 11 warning from al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri that the West should “strengthen [its] defenses” in the Gulf.

The government foolishly attempted to tie these attacks to bin Shamlan’s campaign by arresting one of his bodyguards, whom they alleged was a member of al-Qaeda. The detention was quickly cast as a piece of electioneering, as bin Shamlan’s camp charged that the man in question was in fact a government agent sent to infiltrate the challenger’s team.

Salih’s final term will also be his toughest. He has seen the country through the 1990 unification and the bloody civil war following the south’s attempt to secede in 1994, but never has he witnessed the travails that are likely in the coming seven years. Besides the loss of oil and water, which will cripple the economy, Yemen must struggle with the consequences of high unemployment, a birth rate of 3.9 percent that shows no signs of leveling off, and overwhelming female illiteracy of nearly 75 percent. Yemen, by the measures employed by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is rapidly approaching failed state status.

In the highly personalized political system created in Yemen by 28 years of rule by the same man, almost everything rides on how Salih chooses to spend his last seven years in the presidential palace. The president could now attempt to engineer a soft landing for Yemen when the oil runs out -- there is no way to avoid a partial crash -- and to defuse some of the other time bombs that imperil the country’s future. But if, as some Yemenis fear, Salih now invests his energies in creating a family dynasty, with his son Ahmad established as his successor, then the election will have been the first step in Yemen’s slide toward destruction.

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