YEMEN: Voters optimistic but concerned about cheating
Elections posters plaster the famous Old City of Sana'a.
SANAA, 17 September 2006 (IRIN) - Some 86 percent of eligible Yemenis plan to vote in elections on 20 September, according to a poll by the independent Yemen Polling Centre (YPC) on 13 September. And for the first time, according to many analysts, there is real competition in this year’s elections and they are likely to be fair.
“The 2003 [parliamentary] elections were a smooth ride for us, not really competitive,” said Mohammad Abulahoum, spokesperson for the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) party. “We got over 70 percent then. These are our first real multi-party elections. We take them seriously. The GPC has to work hard.”
The leading opposition presidential candidate, Faisal Bin Shamlan has said he did not expect to win - partly because of problems with the conduct of the elections. “In the current circumstances, these elections have a 60 to 75 percent chance of being free and fair,” Bin Shamlan said.
“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,” he added.
However, leading international electoral support organisations, such as the US-based International Foundation for Election Sytems (IFES), have said that technical preparations were going reasonably well, obviating the likelihood of systematic fraud.
“For the most part, the SCER [Supreme Council for Elections and Referendum] has done everything within its mandate and organisational capacity to prepare for these elections,” read an IFES pre-elections assessment report released last week.
“But there are a lot of matters outside their control: parties playing games, local sheikhs and dignitaries hijacking the process in some areas,” said IFES Country Director Dr Paul Harris. Nevertheless, Dr Harris said he was optimistic.Unprecedented competition
Yemenis will vote three times on Wednesday: for the president, and for two levels of local government - at governorate and district levels.
Five candidates will compete for the presidential elections, 24,000 will compete in the local elections.
The competition is unprecedented. The YPC’s poll shows that this time, 30 percent of voters plan to vote for Bin Shamlan, while just under 50 percent said they will vote for the incumbent.
This is a far cry from the last presidential election in 1999 when President Ali Abdallah Saleh won 96 percent of the vote. He was challenged only by an obscure member of his own party.
The government has been accused of rigging past elections. In the 1997 elections, “the Congress Party was alleged to have moved military units to constituencies in order to produce a majority vote for the president’s party”, according to the Brussels-based NGO International Crisis Group.
It went on to allege that the ruling party “registered minors and deceased voters” and “issued several electoral cards to voters who were deemed loyal supporters”. Similar reports were made at the 2003 parliamentary elections.Close scrutiny
Yemen’s elections will be closely scrutinised. International and domestic elections observers will be out in force, with the European Union deploying 40 long-term and 40 short-term observers. Thousands of local NGO observers will follow the process, as will political party agents and media across the country.
All of this, however, is not enough to convince experienced Yemeni voters that the elections will be entirely free and fair. In YPC’s latest poll, 53 percent of voters said that fraud was “likely” or “somewhat likely”.
Campaigning has been marked by fierce speeches by both sides criticising the other candidates.
“This is something different,” said voter Bakr. “We haven’t had this kind of open campaign before.” However, he remained cynical. “I will vote, but what we need is for them to clean up corruption.”
Abulahoum said that the GPC was spending around 6 billion rials (more than US $30 million) on their campaign and claimed the opposition bloc, Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), was spending a similar figure.
Many commentators say these elections are more transparent than previous ones and are certainly more so than most other elections in the region. Yemen’s elections are considered a showcase for democracy in a region largely lacking in democratic procedures.
For the first time, state-run broadcasters (the only legal broadcasters in Yemen) have been give equal and free airtime to all presidential candidates. In addition, opposition parties can hold rallies and campaign freely.
Women’s participation is also relatively better than last time. While in the last local elections only 128 women participated, this time 160 have come forward, and quite a few of them are independent candidates, says Bilquis Abu Ospa, a lecturer in political science at the University of Sana’a.
None of the five presidential candidates, however, are women. “This is not yet our country,” Bilquis says.