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YEMEN - Political Front Is Relatively Stable.

On the political front, Yemen has been relatively stable in recent years with President Saleh having consolidated his power base. The ruling General People's Congress (GPC) leadership looks likely to remain in power for the foreseeable future. Following the presidential election victory of Saleh in September 1999, he placed Yemen on a path of reform and positive diplomacy. To some extent this approach continues, but on the other hand there have been signals that Saleh, too, may eventually move towards the "republican dynasty" type of government, which is taking hold in countries such as Syria, Egypt and Libya.

Given the geo-political situation following 9/11, Saleh may calculate that such an approach would not create much of a backlash in the West - i.e. mainly the US with which Yemen is working closely in the war against terror. But this depends on which of two schools of thought dominates in Washington.

One school of thought, emanating from a core of strategic advisors and planners in the US, is that the problem of terrorism will not disappear until the entire region is politically reformed beyond recognition, which basically means the imposition of democratic structures even against the will of existing regimes. The other school of thought is that the US should pull back and leave the countries of the region to work out their own solutions, intervening only when a clear and present danger to American interests becomes evident.

Saleh's calculation will prove to be wrong if the first school of though prevails, i.e. if the US objectives in the Middle East go beyond crushing the Al Qaida to changing political systems within the region as a whole. On the other hand, it has been noted by US officials that Saleh has managed to do introduce a relatively fair democratic process in the country through the 1990s, which has been praised by the US in the past.

However, the regime recently came under criticism following parliamentary elections in April 2003, which were declared as having been marred by irregularities. Among more than 1,300 candidates for 301 seats were 297 running under the banner of the ruling GPC, 105 candidates from the leftist Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP - the former ruling party of the south) and 185 representing the conservative Islamic Congregation for Reform (Al Islah), led by Speaker Shaikh Abdullah Al Ahmar.

The election campaign season was lively but the GPC got the bulk of the exposure during this period. As the GPC chairs all national and local elections commissions, and also manages public airwaves, transport, jobs and services, the deck was stacked heavily in favor of the ruling party. With its election-time logo being the silhouette of a rearing horse, the GPC benefited from free publicity paid for with government resources. Streets were closed in Sanaa for a GPC parade led by pairs of police stallions. The public sports field in Ghayl Ba Wazir, in Hadhramaut, hosted a GPC rally where schoolchildren, sports teams and dance troupes performed. The week before the election there was plenty of televised scenes of inaugurations and cornerstone-laying for new schools and public works by governors and ministers.

After the polls, external election observers criticised the Yemen Supreme Committee of Elections and Referendum (SCER) for delaying the results. The American National Democratic Institute (NDI) said the elections were marred by numerous contraventions committed by the political parties especially the ruling party. Leslie Campbell, representative of NDI, criticised the elections in a press conference for threats exercised against some voters, irresponsible behaviour on the part of security men, vote buying, setting back the vote count and the announcement of results. However, Campbell also said: "This election turned out to be much more competitive than anyone had expected...There's been an amazing improvement in the administration of the election. Everyone is saying that it's being administered fairly. It's a remarkable improvement since the last election. This is a significant step forward, not just a small step".

Yet there were incidents of gunfire and unrest as some of the groups disagreed with the poll results, which were delayed. Before the elections, Saleh had promised the public that, within 72 hours of the closing of polls, 301 clear winners from different parties would emerge. The tactics employed by the GPC suggests that the government was secure in its belief that the opposition would not put up any real resistance to the outcome. Saleh is well aware that he cannot afford to get sidetracked by regional geo-politics and reduce focus on the country's political or economic priorities.

Despite the problems, therefore, there is a relatively high degree of domestic political stability as the relationship between the Saleh's GPC and the Shaikh Al Ahmar's Al Islah is based on an unwritten understanding to co-exist so long as the status quo in terms of tribal and sectarian privileges and patronage is not disturbed. Thus Shaikh Al Ahmar is working as a partner of the government of President Saleh. Despite disagreements on both political and economic issues, there is fairly good behind-the-scenes co-ordination between the GPC and Al Islah. And despite a latent suspicion on both sides that one is trying to undermine the power base of the other, all indications are that the two sides will continue to co-exist for the foreseeable future.

The understanding between the two men, however, reflects the way in which the fortunes of Al Islah and GPC are linked because both of them draw their strength from the same tribal base - i.e. the Hashid confederation. Saleh is himself a Zaidi Shiite and member of the Sanhan tribe of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation. He has a good standing among the leaders of the major tribes of the confederation. And Saleh's legitimacy is enhanced by the fact that he has strong links with Shaikh Al Ahmar, who heads the Hashid tribal confederation. So long as this partnership holds, Saleh is likely to remain unchallenged as the leader of Yemen. For example, he had the support of Shaikh Al Ahmar in the September 1999 presidential elections. He will most likely have at least tacit support in the next elections, due in September 2004
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Publication:APS Diplomat Redrawing the Islamic Map
Geographic Code:7YEME
Date:Aug 18, 2003
Previous Article:YEMEN - Taking On The Militants.
Next Article:The Rifts Within Muslim States - Part 20 - Conclusions.

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