Yemen elections: Only one choice, but is it still progress?

Tom A. Peter

Tomorrow Yemenis will go to the polls to officially bring to a close more than three decades of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule.

The moment may be one of unprecedented change for Yemen, but it leaves something to be desired as a beacon of democracy. In this election, voters will enter the polling both to find a ballot with only one candidate – Mr. Saleh’s Vice President, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi – accompanied by a graphic of the map of Yemen and the national flag.

Among many international observers and Yemenis, though, the uncontested election is not seen as problematic, but a necessary step to peacefully remove Saleh and begin the transition process. Yemeni participation in the election and the government’s ability to provide security tomorrow will also likely serve as a bellwether of the challenges that lay ahead for the nation, one central to the ongoing fight against Al Qaeda.

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“This election on the 21st of February isn’t the end all, be all. It’s one part of a much longer-term process and I think that’s the context people need to look at it with,” says Grant Kippen, chief of party for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. “This is a great opportunity when there’s not the competitiveness that’s usually associated with elections to actually sit down and work through the processes, the procedures, and then going forward when the referendum happens in the following elections to really have solid, well-known procedures in place.”

Saleh agreed to step down after the Gulf Cooperation Council brokered an agreement in November. As part of the deal, Yemenis will redraft their constitution and have a referendum to prepare for competitive elections in two years time.

Is it really an election?

Still, even among those who supported the GCC agreement, there is some frustration that elections are being used to hand power to Mr. Hadi.

Hassan Zaid was among the signatories of the agreement and supports Hadi as the new president of Yemen, but he says using an election to grant him power risks leaving Yemenis disenchanted with the election process. 

“If they say it is a kind of rally to support this GCC agreement, a lot of people would support this, but don’t tell people that it’s an election,” says Mr. Hassan, secretary general for the opposition’s Haq Party. “What’s happening now is a violation of our constitutional legitimacy and ridiculing the election process.”

Despite his dissatisfaction, Hassan says he will still vote and show his support for Hadi. 

The US has already officially backed Hadi via an official letter from President Barack Obama in which he wrote that he looks forward to cooperating with Hadi. With the Al Qaeda threat still large in Yemen, where the US conducts regular drone operations, relations with the new Yemeni leader will be critical.

“It is a very unique kind election, but it will begin what we hope is a process of substantial change in the society over the next two years that will culminate in February 2014 with what we anticipate will be a full, fair, and free democratic election,” says Gerald Feierstein, US Ambassador to Yemen.

Many young, few jobs

A year after the unrest began in Yemen, the biggest challenges may extend far beyond the transition currently underway.

The same issues that helped sparked unrest – namely unemployment and economic instability – remain a problem and in many cases the political crisis and fighting only exacerbated the issues. 

The median age in Yemen is 18 and 43 percent of the population is 14 years old or younger. Among those 24 or younger, joblessness remains a significant problem. Several estimates put unemployment as high as 50 percent among this demographic.  

“At the end of the day, the national dialogue, constitutional reform – those particular issues essentially mean very little if youth don’t have jobs, education systems are failing, health systems aren’t providing. Those sort of bread-and-butter issues need to be addressed along with the conversations about political processes and political issues,” says Heather Therrien, resident director of the National Democratic Institute in Sanaa.

Additionally, Al Qaeda has managed to gain ground in Yemen over the past year, and tensions remain high between Sanaa and the south where a secessionist movement is strong. Southern separatists have called for civil disobedience to disrupt voting and the threat of violence against polling stations remain high.

Civil war is still a concern among many Yemenis if these long-standing concerns are not addressed in a substantive manner by the new government. However, after the ousting of Saleh, there is some optimism that government will now be forced to take action on issues it previously neglected.

“If we hadn’t had this kind of challenge, the political establishment would have been resistant to sudden demands of autonomy which would have left these grievances festering for a much longer time. It’s an opportunity for us to build a more equitable and viable political system,” says Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryani, president of the Democratic Awakening Movement, also known by its Arabic acronym TAWQ.