Another Saleh Victory: Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh Won His Country's Presidential Election in September, to the Surprise of Nobody at All. How Free and Fair Were the Elections and What Does the Result Mean for Yemen's Future?

By Gearon, Eamonn | The Middle East, November 2006 | Go to article overview

Another Saleh Victory: Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh Won His Country's Presidential Election in September, to the Surprise of Nobody at All. How Free and Fair Were the Elections and What Does the Result Mean for Yemen's Future?


Gearon, Eamonn, The Middle East


THE DRAMA THAT was the Yemeni presidential election began more than a year before the polls opened on 20 September. Back in July 2005, the incumbent, President Saleh, announced he would not be contesting the election scheduled for the following year. He said it was in Yemen's best interests for "patriotic and educated ... young blood" to take the country into the future. A sceptical Yemeni public and press were slow to react to the declaration, imagining that it was impossible that the strong man of Yemeni politics would simply bow out with a whimper.

After a few weeks passed without any apparent alteration in the president's decision, people began, slowly and cautiously, to voice their approval of the announcement and to think about a future without the man who has been the dominant force in the Yemeni political scene for nearly three decades. Who would become the new head of the ruling General People's Congress? Who would emerge as viable opposition contenders? In what direction would Yemen move after Saleh?

The effort spent wondering about such issues was, it transpired, a waste of time. Following a government announcement that fuel subsidies in the country would end, prices doubled overnight and nationwide rioting broke out. The fighting ceased after three days, following a reversal in the presidential decision and, more importantly, by the deployment of army units to seal off those largely poor areas where most of the trouble had originated. The riots were notable for the unusual level of anti-government slogans, both chanted and written on the protestors' homemade banners.

President Saleh's response to this violent public outburst was to announce that, purely in the best interests of the country, he would stand for re-election after all, reasoning that the country was not yet ready to see him leave public life. This unusual interpretation of events led conspiracy-minded Yemenis to speculate that the announcement regarding increased fuel prices had been designed to provoke a violent response and the resultant termination of Saleh's retirement plans.

This was only the second presidential vote since the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, and when the result was announced on state television, President Saleh was returned to office with 77% of votes cast. While a seemingly impossibly high number by most western standards, this figure was actually a great deal less than the 82% predicted for Saleh by at least two Arabic television networks, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyya. According to the country's electoral commission, some 5m people voted out of a total eligible electorate of roughly 9.2m.

Saleh's main opposition candidate, former oil minister Faisal Al Shamlan, received just over 21% of the vote. Al Shamlan, who at 72 years of age was perhaps not quite what Saleh had meant by 'young blood', headed the coalition of opposition groups known as the Joint Meeting Parties, or JMP, which was drawn from five political parties including Islah and the Yemeni Socialist Party. Al Shalman's chances of ousting Saleh were never strong but announcements such as those made by the Speaker of the House of Parliament, Sheikh Abdallah Al Ahmar, did not help. Al Ahmar, who as well as being the Speaker of the House is also the respected if less than dynamic head of Islah, supposedly the main opposition party, decided to back the president rather than his own candidate. Islah has in the past been accused of colluding with the government by not offering any serious opposition.

Despite the fact that at least three people died in violence around the election, the overall process was considered safe and relatively peaceful, and while members of the opposition complained about certain irregularities on Election Day, even they conceded Saleh's victory in time for his re-inauguration.

Saleh was sworn in, for what the constitution states must be his last term in office, on 24 September. …

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