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YEMEN - The Political Scene.

Currently, the political situation in Yemen is one of stability. Although Saleh has pushed through some unpopular economic reforms, he is widely respected as the man who prevented this highly tribalised and fractious country from breaking up - a task made especially difficult by the fact that almost everybody is armed in Yemen; the ratio of guns to people is three to one. Saleh's present term in office, for five years, will end in 2004. Before that, the GPC will have to contest parliamentary elections in 2001.

The parliamentary elections on April 27, 1997, produced a solid majority for the GPC, the party of President Saleh, assuring a degree of continuity and internal political stability. The unicameral House of Representatives has 301 seats with members elected by popular vote to serve four-year terms.

The 1997 election resulted in the GPC winning 189 seats and the Al Islah 52 seats, followed by the much smaller Nasserite Unionist Party with 3 seats, the National Arab Socialist Baath Party with 2 seats and independents with 54 seats. The southern Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) did not take part in the polls. The elections were declared free and fair by nearly all the international observers. In May 1997, the president created a consultative council, sometimes referred to as the upper house of Parliament; its 59 members are all appointed by the president.

The presidential elections of September 1999 reinforced the trend, although there were complaints of fraud and other malpractices. Saleh was guaranteed a win since he had only one opponent - Najib Qahtan Al Shaabi, a member of his own political party who ran as an independent. The main opposition candidate, the YSP's Secretary General Ali Saleh Obaid, was unable to gain enough approval votes in parliament to stand. It was not surprising, therefore, when Saleh won with a margin of 93.6% in favour.

The opposition YSP slammed the presidential election as a sham. YSP political bureau member Jarallah Omar said at the time that the president himself had chosen his only challenger, Al Shaabi. He added that the YSP's boycott call was widely observed and that the maximum turnout in any constituency was 50%, rather than the official figure of 66% announced by the election commission.

In the short- to medium-term, no domestic rival is expected to come on the scene although the Al Islah movement cannot be ruled out as an unpredictable factor. For the time being Saleh has the support of Al Islah, which backed his candidacy in the elections. One reason why Al Islah backed Saleh is that he has been willing to share the power. Al Islah leader Shaikh Abdullah Al Ahmar, head of the Hashid tribal confederation from which Saleh himself comes, is the speaker of parliament.

Saleh recognises that he cannot tamper too much with the political set up in Yemen, which essentially consists of two functioning parallel political systems, an emerging modern democracy, and an ancient tribal/feudal system dependent on patronage and tribal consensus. So long as the partnership between Saleh and Shaikh Abdullah holds, a fairly high degree of stability is assured in Yemen.

There is a lingering resentment in southern Yemen over what people there see as domination by the northerners. Southerners say they had great expectations of the union, but that their hopes have been dashed. They point out that was at least partly what led to the May-July 1994 civil war. They complain that northerners continue to hold most of the key positions in local government, and that the bulk of the country's oil revenues go to Sanaa in the north. The Saleh government denies this and points out that efforts are underway to turn Aden (the former southern capital and currently the commercial capital as designated by Saleh) into a hub for trade in the Middle East, a role it enjoyed in antiquity.

There are also concerns that Saleh is building up his position to such an extent that he may opt eventually to have a "republican dynasty" in the country, as has happened in Syria. His eldest son, Lieutenant-Colonel Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, was appointed commander of the country's special forces in November 1999. The news of the appointment of was announced while he was taking part in the visit by a military delegation to Jordan. Ahmed is already a member of the Yemeni parliament.

Opposition groups in Yemen suspect that, if Saleh pursues such an option, he may not find much criticism from the West - which has demonstrated a willingness to accept dynastic succession so long as the successor is pro-Western. Internally, this could be destabilising but the chances of a succession in the near future are slim. Aged 58, Saleh is said to be in good health. For its part, the ruling GPC is not likely to challenge what Saleh wants, as it is an organization with less emphasis on ideology and more on following the lead of the president in governing the country.

Saleh has managed to achieve something that few observers would have thought possible on May 22, 1990 when the two Yemens were unified. He has asserted his control over the southern sector after the short and sharp civil war of 1994, tamed the powerful Islamic movement Al Islah, and positioned himself as the unchallenged leader of the country.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Fate of the Arabian Peninsula
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:7YEME
Date:Jul 17, 2000
Previous Article:YEMEN - Liberalisation In The Middle East - Part 21.
Next Article:YEMEN - Economic Reform.

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