Inside Story

Is Yemen on the path to democracy?

As Yemenis vote in an election with just one candidate, we ask if this is an attempt to keep the old regime in power.

A presidential election with only one candidate – in Yemen voters are being asked to endorse Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the long-time vice president, as the country’s new leader.

Following a year of protests and civil unrest that eventually resulted in the end of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year presidency, millions of Yemenis will this week have the opportunity to vote.

“Throughout the revolution … wise people in Yemen realised that as the country fragments, the only thing that will keep them united is the constitution. Therefore, maintaining constitutional legitimacy is absolutely important.

– Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a political analyst

The governing party and the opposition coalition have joined hands in calling for Yemenis to vote and many activists who opposed Saleh’s rule see this election as a referendum for democratic transition. 
But those fighting for partition in the south are calling for a boycott, as are rebel groups in the north and al-Qaeda elements in various parts of the country.

But the posters calling on Yemenis to vote for Hadi do little to conceal Yemen’s more complex political reality – where there are many players with often conflicting interests.

The father of tribal leader Hameed al-Ahmar was for four decades the most powerful man in Yemen. Now al-Ahmar shrugs off calls for his family to stay away from politics, saying: “We are a political family. We have been in politics, paying the duty of serving our country, for centuries, for generations. We think we would be capable to continue serving our country.”

A power struggle between the deposed president and the al-Ahmars last year degenerated into fierce fighting in which dozens were killed.

The Salafis who have, until now, kept a low profile are also rallying force.

“If the whole exercise turns out to be only a way of changing the president and leaving the regime intact then this will be a wasted opportunity.

– Mohamed Qubaty, an opposition activist

Salafi leader Aqeel al-Maqtari explains: “In the political process, Salafis were generally of the view that politics were un-Islamic. We were also divided with no united leadership. Now things are changing.”

So, just who are the players that could end up playing a critical role in shaping Yemen’s future?

Presidents in Yemen have always enjoyed huge powers, but they have never ruled on their own. Behind-the-scenes there have always been powerful tribal leaders. Will the new president be able to create an atmosphere of consensus and put an end to decades of power struggle and instability?

Is this vote a step towards a new democracy, or an attempt to stifle the revolution and keep the old regime in place?

Does the election truly signal the end of the Saleh era?

Can real democracy be achieved under a man who served as vice president in the previous regime for 18 years? And what are the challenges he is likely to face?

Joining Inside Story to discuss this are: Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a political analyst and president of the Democratic Awakening Movement; Mohamed Qubaty, an opposition activist, former advisor to the Yemeni prime minister and former head of Yemen’s Foreign Relations and International Cooperation Department; and Nora Ann Colton, a professor of International Business at the University of East London and the author of the upcoming book The Political Economy of Yemen.

“Many Yemenis who have sacrificed much over not just the last few months but over many years feel a sense of betrayal as they do not see this as an open election in terms of understanding exactly what this is going to lead to. And so we see a lot of frustration in the south, we also see it in the tribal north, that this [election] is really seen as a legitimisation of the same regime and it really does not witness a moment of significant change in Yemen.”

Nora Ann Colton, a professor of International Business

Timeline of Yemen’s revolution:

  • January 2011 – Protests against Saleh began
  • March 18, 2011 – Snipers killed more than 40 protesters at Sana’a University. Saleh declared a state of emergency
  • April 6, 2011 – The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) drew up a deal in which Saleh would peacefully step down. But it was not implemented
  • June 3, 2011 – Saleh was injured in an attack on the presidential compound and taken to neighbouring Saudi Arabia for medical treatment
  • September 23, 2011 – Saleh returned to Yemen
  • November 23, 2011 – Saleh finally signed the GCC-backed deal to transfer power and step down within three months. He was granted full immunity in return. Protests continued with many citizens insisting that Saleh should face trial
  • January 22, 2012 – Saleh left Yemen to receive medical treatment in the US, insisting that he intended to return