Yemen's `Remarkable' Elections Are a First for Arabian Peninsula

THREE years after unifying the Marxist south with the traditional north, Yemen has successfully conducted the only fully free elections ever held on the Arabian Peninsula.

Attempting to prove that a conservative Muslim society can adopt a democratic government, this moutainous state allowed both women and religious minorities - including Yemeni Jews - to participate at the polls.

In a tribal society where AK-47 assault rifles and djambias, the traditional dagger, are seen as signs of manhood, what has been striking is the lack of violence surrounding the election.

"Obviously, with the rest of the peninsula still unable to cope with democracy, Yemen's achievement is remarkable," says a Western diplomat here.

The vote for Yemen's new 301-seat parliament was the latest stage in a unification process that was precipitated by economic collapse and corruption.

The former socialist republic of South Yemen, led by President Ali Salim al-Beid's Socialist Party, was impelled into the union when it lost foreign aid after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the north, popular discontent with the corrupt and incompetent rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's People's General Congress (PGC), motivated the government to enter the popular merger.

The two party leaders created a coalition government, with Mr. Saleh as president and Mr. Beid as vice president. They promised Yemenis an open political system and a free press. More than 40 parties contested the elections, and thousands of independent candidates entered the race. The issues were widely covered in 100 newspapers and magazines.

Although the interim period has seen further economic decline, which sparked widespread rioting last December, the earliest results yesterday showed that President Saleh was winning a majority of the seats in his traditional tribal stronghold in the north. At least one woman has been elected as an independent in the former southern capital of Aden. Only 48 women ran as candidates, prompting complaints from Yemeni women's organizations that too few were fielded by mainstream parties.

The most surprising early result was the poor showing of the Islamist Yemeni Congregation for Reform, Al-Islah, which won only eight of 64 districts reporting. But election observers suggested that Al-Islah candidates were being pulled out by their party in order to favor the PGC, which shares with Al-Islah a traditionalist constituency based in the northern tribal heartland.

Al-Islah is seen as a moderate, traditional Islamic party, but there is a radical element of fundamentalism that supports the kind of state-enforced puritanism found in Saudi Arabia.

At the polls, reports from around Yemen revealed few problems. In the city of Taiz, for example, hundreds of eager voters lined up hours before the polls opened. "This is democracy, and I must vote," explained Biquis Abdullah, a young schoolteacher.

There were complaints about the advantages being accorded to the two main parties in terms of access to funds and the media as well as their control of state institutions. But even the fiercest opposition parties accepted that the Supreme Electoral Commission (SEC), on which a number of opposition party representatives sat, had achieved success.

"The systems of checks and balances on each other to guarantee that there can be no tampering, is beyond belief," says Linda Edgeworth, a delegate of the US-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

Everywhere there was a sense of national satisfaction at having shown the outside world that Yemen is capable of organizing a clean election without violence. It was a message directed particularly at Saudi Arabia, which has led an economic boycott against Yemen in retaliation for the latter's support criticism of Saudi Arabia's role in the Gulf war.

Saudi Arabia is widely accused of buying favor with some of the border tribes to influence the course of the results in favor of the Islamist Al-Islah. Sheikh Abduallah Al-Ahmar, leader of Al-Islah and of Yemen's largest tribal confederacy, has made it clear that he would enter a coalition government. Informed sources believe that he will be the next speaker of the Yemeni parliament, perhaps as a reward for aiding the PGC.

Given the PGC's apparent success in the election, the new parliament is expected to elect Saleh as president. To ensure his success, the PGC won the allegience of at least 16 independents who were seen as sure winners in the last weeks before the vote. Beid will also likely remain in his post to ensure there is no disruption in the south, which still has its own Army, analysts say.

"We will not be able to build our country until we have stability and the only way to do that now is to bring all these competing parties into the process," one young Yemeni voter says.

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