By Gearon, Eamonn
The Middle East , No. 368
ON 17 JULY 2005, President Saleh, a man many believed would like to reign until the end of his days, declared that he would not be standing for re-election in the September 2006 presidential election. Later that same month, the government declared an end to fuel subsidies, which led to three days of rioting across the country. As a result of this unrest, the President intimated that he would stand for re-election in the interests of national stability. However, at the time of writing Saleh continues to say he will not be taking part in the elections, which are now only a few months away.
President Saleh's announcement was made during a speech celebrating his having been in power for 27 years. While greatly surprised by the proclamation, the majority of local and foreign observers were initially sceptical as to its veracity. Yemen's newspaper editors were especially suspicious, remaining cautious about penning any leaders that might have come back to haunt them. The prospect of genuinely free elections and a future without a President who has led a united Yemen since independence, and the country's north even longer, seemed too incredible to be true.
President Saleh became the ruler of the northern, now defunct, state of the Yemen Arab Republic in 1978, following the assassination of the previous two presidents within a year of each other. Although at the time it was not thought that he would survive more than a few months, he confounded general opinion by remaining both alive and head of state. When the Yemen Arab Republic joined with the former socialist south in 1990, creating the Republic of Yemen, Saleh was appointed President of the newly unified state. In 1998, when the country held its first democratic election, Saleh took a remarkable 98% of the vote, in an election where he ran against a largely unknown member of his own party. The result made Saleh the first popularly-elected president on the Arabian Peninsula.
This impressive result was perhaps aided by the fact that the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) was prohibited from fielding a candidate, leading them to boycott the whole process, which they declared a charade. Today, the Islah (Reconstruction) party remains the main opposition, such as it is. For the 1998 contest they chose not to field a candidate of their own, preferring to nominate Saleh for re-election, which they did even before his own party, the General People's Congress (GPC), managed to.
Since national unification, Saleh has quelled a relatively minor civil war in 1994, increased the single presidential term in office from 5 to 7 years and appointed a large number of his most loyal family members to positions of influence nationwide, including heads of both the armed forces and internal security. In spite of this, the 63-year-old's grip on the country as a whole is often questioned. Perhaps the President isn't overly bothered as to whether or not he enjoys any real support across the country, especially in those more mountainous areas where tribal loyalty comes first and last. If he decides to run the September 2006 election and retires after serving a full term in 2013, (a Saleh victory is a certainty if he does run) he will have been head of state for a total of 35 years.
Following Saleh's shock July 2005 announcement, and just as Yemenis were beginning to imagine the possibility of genuinely free elections, there was another announcement that created an even greater reaction. On 19 July, the government announced that subsidies on both petrol and diesel would be terminated from midnight that same day. Literally overnight, the price of petrol nearly doubled and diesel tripled in price. …