Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The High Water Mark of Islamist Politics? the Case of Yemen

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The High Water Mark of Islamist Politics? the Case of Yemen

Article excerpt

In Yemen, Islamists seem to have lost their edge in an area formerly considered their strength: grassroots politics. In the 2006 local council elections the Islamist party Islah suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of the ruling General People's Congress (GPC) party. The overwhelming victory of the GPC in the local councils can be accounted for with reference to four main factors: the GPC's use of the state to advance its electoral aims; the political skill of GPC politicians; the political blunders of the Joint Meeting Parties) JMP; and finally, several political liabilities particular to Islah, including internal fragmentation and party members' often harmful records in office. The elections show that President 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih and his supporters have developed a more nuanced semi-authoritarian framework for maintaining power. In contrast, the opposition demonstrated political immaturity, internal weakness, and an inability to use potential grassroots support to oppose the regime. The future of accountability and competitive politics in Yemen is intimately connected to the political survival and revitalization of Islah. In the aftermath of the elections, the opposition must conduct serious, critical self-evaluation if it intends to hold the regime accountable and to curb the ever-increasing centralization of power around the President and his family.

Islamist parties have proven themselves at the ballot box. In Palestine, Iraq, Bahrain, and Iran they constitute democratically elected parliamentary majorities. In Lebanon, Hizbullah is poised to play an even larger role in a governing coalition. In Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, the Islamist opposition wins votes despite overwhelming obstacles imposed by the state. Across the Middle East, Islamists are increasingly gaining real political governing and/or bargaining power through elections. In Yemen, however, they seem to have lost their edge in an area formerly considered their strength: grassroots politics. In the 2006 local council elections the Islamist party, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, or Islah, suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of the ruling General People's Congress (GPC) party.1

International media and scholarly attention focused heavily on the novelty of the 2006 Yemeni presidential elections.2 Unlike most presidential elections in the Arab world, the Yemeni election was semi-competitive. The challenger, Faysal bin Shamlan, was a viable alternative to incumbent President 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih. At times the campaign was heated and there was real uncertainty surrounding the percentage of the vote each candidate would win. In the end, the results could not have been more positive for the ruling regime. Instead of the typical ninety-something percent garnered by Arab autocrats, Salih won only 77% - a safe majority, but not too safe so as to spoil the picture of democratic competition.

Indeed, this was a common theme in Sana'a qat chews3 following the elections. The final winner of the presidential election was considered, even by members of the opposition, as a foregone conclusion. The real surprise, and the more interesting component of the elections, was the landslide victory of the GPC in the local councils. The local councils were thought to be a highly contested arena where the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP)4 would effectively compete, and could even win, over the GPC. Instead, the JMP, and particularly its most powerful member, Islah, were essentially massacred at the grassroots level.

This article will attempt to explain the GPC's victory, and Islah's defeat, in the local council elections. The loss was intimately connected to the GPC's ability to use the state to advance its electoral aims, but this factor only provides part of the explanation. On many levels, the GPC simply played a better political game than the opposition. Analyzing the political dynamics behind the elections will provide important insights into the future of the Yemeni opposition, particularly the Islamist opposition, and ultimately into the potential for political and socio-economic reform. …

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