A (Successful) Test of Democracy in Yemen

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Most Americans know Yemen only from history books. Located at the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen was historically famous as the home of the Queen of Sheba and as the source of frankincense used in the churches of medieval Europe.

Yemen is still traditional and quite poor, despite the discovery of oil reserves by a United States company in the 1980s. Only since 1990, when North and South Yemen were united, has Yemen had multiple political parties, independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and a relatively free press. The society is still essentially tribal. Most citizens are armed, half are illiterate, and there is no middle class to speak of. North-South tensions, which in 1994 led to a two-month civil war, remain. The Yemeni Socialist Party, based in the south, opposes northern "domination," and called for a general boycott of the 1997 election, charging voter registration fraud. Yet on April 27 Yemen held its second parliamentary election ever.

The two remaining major parties were President Ali Abdullah Saleh's General People's Congress, and the Islamic Reform (Islah) party. Some Westerners see Islah as a radical Muslim fundamentalist party, but it is in fact a conglomeration of conservative tribal elements, merchants, and some religious leaders, only a few of whom are hard-line Islamists. Election monitors included a 34-person National Democratic Institute delegation, led by a former member of the US Congress and several Yemeni groups.

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The Supreme Election Commission, established by law as an independent body with balanced political representation, supervised the process. Two independent Yemeni nongovernmental organizations, the Election Monitoring Committee and the Arab Democratic Institute, also monitored the voting, using thousands of volunteers throughout the country.

I watched the April elections as an independent international observer. At every polling place and ballot counting station I visited, people appeared to be eagerly participating in the process. Voters lined up at polling places hours before they opened, waiting patiently to cast their ballots.

Inside the building, in separate rooms designated for each ballot box, an official three-member election committee, as well as representatives of all the candidates, watched and assisted the voters. They arranged for illiterate voters, if they wished, to take a friend or committee member into the curtained polling booth. The voters were generally well prepared, having seen instructional demonstrations on television and elsewhere. I watched one illiterate elderly man emerge from the booth after marking his ballot with the help of a committee member, only to request that a second member return with him to the booth to make sure the first hadn't cheated him by marking the wrong name (he hadn't).

Yemeni women were enthusiastic and serious participants, although only a dozen ran as candidates. Polling places generally offered separate rooms and ballot boxes for female voters, supervised by women. I witnessed one incident in which the woman chairing the election committee made clear to the male governor, when he stopped by and questioned her, that she knew better than he what the rules were. He backed off.

Vote counting was long and tedious. In each of the 301 electoral districts throughout the country, a group of 20 to 30 Yemenis - representatives of the independent election commission and all participating candidates, as well as NGO observers - sat down around a table and began counting ballots. Each box took up to an hour or more since each ballot had to be unfolded, examined, shown to all present, and tabulated by hand. Some counting sites had as many as 85 boxes, so the process took up to four days. Participants took only short breaks to eat or sleep, usually next to the unopened boxes to ensure security.

To an American observer, accustomed to a simpler process, their patience, dedication, and stamina were extraordinary. I asked some why they didn't use voting machines and computers; they said they would not trust such a system because it would not be transparent.

Fears of security personnel influencing the vote turned out to be largely unfounded. Only one major incident involving security personnel occurred before the polls opened in Abyan, when a guard opened fire, killing seven election officials. Although guns often settle Yemeni disputes, other outbreaks of election violence were relatively minor.

Requiring each voter to dip his or her thumb into indelible ink prevented duplicate voting. Voting by underage and "deceased" participants was avoided by a double registration system. In the end, more than 3 million Yemenis out of about 6 million eligible voters cast ballots.

In seven years, Yemen has developed an electoral system that worked remarkably well and has the potential to develop Yemeni democracy further in the future.

* William A. Rugh, a former career Foreign Service officer, was US ambassador to North Yemen from 1984 to 1987 and is president of AMIDEAST in Washington.

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