Ein Gastkommentar von Will Picard
On February 21, Yemen will hold a presidential election that will defy almost every notion of what an election should be. Contrary to Yemeni law, the “election” will feature only one candidate, whose victory has been decided ahead of time; but even if the election’s result is certain, its effects are difficult to predict.
The voting process in question—“referendum” is a more accurate description than “election,” but both words are far too suggestive of democracy for this occasion—has been mandated not by the Yemeni constitution, nor by popular demand, but by an agreement signed by the heads of Yemen’s largest political parties and written by representatives of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), hardly experts in the science of representative government. The GCC initiative, which was heavily sponsored by the United States and brokered in part by the United Nations, was foisted upon Yemen as an ostensible solution to what the GCC liked to call Yemen’s “political crisis,” the year-long popular revolution against the regime of President ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh. In actual fact, the deal could fail to meet any the revolution’s demands, while giving Saleh everything he could ask for.
Vice President ‘Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi—who has served Saleh since 1994 and has no real power base of his own—has been “nominated” by both Saleh’s ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC) and the opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), and will run unopposed (a few independent revolutionaries have declared their intentions to run, but none has been certified by parliament). With no opponent, Hadi is guaranteed victory. But other than a promotion for Hadi, it’s not clear what, if anything, the election will achieve.
The GCC initiative was drafted in late May after a series of negotiations that began in March, when a number of prominent political and military figures broke away from the regime in response to the March 18 massacre of over 50 protesters in Sanʻa. By the time Saleh signed the deal in late November, his forces had killed hundreds more and pushed the country to the verge of all-out civil war. Since the signing, incidents of large-scale violence have decreased, but otherwise not much has changed.
The unity government formed in December (another creation of the GCC deal) has thus far failed to achieve its most pressing objective, the demilitarization of Yemen’s cities and the restructuring of Yemen’s divided military. Saleh’s close relatives still command much of the armed forces and other coercive apparatuses. In fact, a great deal of Saleh’s regime remains intact. ‘Ali Saleh himself is currently vacationing in New York, and has said more than once that he plans to return to Yemen before February 21 to “participate” in Hadi’s big day. His exact plans for the near future are unclear, but neither the GCC deal nor the facts on the ground would prevent him from meddling in the political arena once the letter of the agreement has been carried out, especially since Yemen’s parliament has already passed a law granting Saleh and his henchmen full immunity from legal action (another stipulation of the deal).
Plenty of intelligent and well-meaning observers have argued in favor of both the immunity provision and the one-candidate election. Full immunity, they argue, was necessary to induce Saleh to sign the agreement and step down. In reality, however, the immunity provision has been counterproductive. It has alienated several revolutionary factions from the political process, prompting the so-called Huthi movement and much of the Southern Movement to announce boycotts of the coming election. It has deprived the new government of an avenue by which it could have removed regime officials from power and recovered purloined state revenues. Most important, though, is the lesson the provision teaches Saleh (not to mention Bashar al-Assad, Hamad al-Khalifah, et al.): that in the eyes of the world, ten months of brutality is no worse than four; that the reward for intransigence is leniency. The GCC deal handed Saleh a victory over his opponents he could never have won by force of arms; with that victory under his belt, and his loyal sons, nephews, and brothers still firmly ensconced in positions of power, what does it matter who bears the title of president?
The GCC initiative contains several provisions that are well thought-out and have the potential to be extremely beneficial. In fact, much of the initiative mirrors the original demands of Yemen’s revolutionary youth: the formation of a Conference of National Dialogue that includes all factions and parties, the drafting of a new constitution and a popular referendum to approve it, a sweeping process of political, judicial, educational, and economic reform to address the basic grievances of the people. But in order for any of those plans to come to fruition, two things must happen first. Before any other progress can be made, the entire Saleh family must be removed from power. With half of the military and huge tranches of the economy in their hands, any other reforms will be superficial. Second, the leaders of the transition and their foreign backers must convince all of the major revolutionary factions to buy in to the transitional process. By granting Saleh and his associates immunity from legal action and failing to place any other restraints on their behavior, the GCC agreement renders impossible the first of these. By forcing a farcical election on the country, it seriously hinders the second.
The international community’s mistakes can still be remedied, however, if the Yemeni transitional authorities are willing to take immediate, decisive action. President-elect Hadi should draft, with the approval of the unity government, a mechanism that would forbid ‘Ali Saleh from having any involvement in politics, and ban all of his immediate family members from military and political positions as well. This won’t be easy to accomplish, but one way or another it must be done if there is to be a meaningful transition. If the governments of the GCC and their friends in the west are at all serious about helping Yemen move forward, they must encourage Hadi in taking this step, and support the decision in any way possible. Once the complete removal of Saleh and his kinsmen is achieved, Hadi and the unity government must immediately assemble the Conference of National Dialogue and constitutional commission. The longer it takes the government to implement this phase of the GCC initiative, the more alienated the revolutionary factions will become, and the less likely groups like the Huthis and the Southern Movement will be to participate in Yemen’s transitional institutions.
If Hadi can summon the will to take decisive action now, Yemen may yet make the most of the deeply flawed transition plan. If not, come February 22, Hadi may find himself a president without a country.
William E. D. Picard is a political and historical researcher and analyst based in Southern California. He has spent a decade studying Southwest Asia, with a particular focus on the modern history and current affairs of Yemen. In late 2009 Picard and three other student activists founded the Yemen Peace Project (YPP), an international network of activists and scholars working to develop and promote peaceful solutions to the challenges facing the people of Yemen. He directs the YPP’s research and public education efforts, manages the organization’s web presence, and writes for the Directors’ Blog.
More information about the YPP can be found at www.yemenpeaceproject.org.
Will Picard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.