Yemen is in a historic period of transition that began in 1994 following unification of the north and south, according to three leading analysts. Although the Arab Spring brought Yeminis to the streets in January 2011 and culminated in a transfer of power in November 2011,political turbulence had been brewing in the country for years, write Zeinab Abdelkarim, Eric Hodachok, and Danielle Monaco of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.
In late November 2011, President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Agreement. This act paved the way for an official handover of power and triggered a transitional process designed to address Yemen’s many lingering political and social problems that were inhibiting the government’s ability to respond to a variety of pressing issues. Backed by members of the international community, the GCC Agreement outlines the requirements and expectations for Yemen’s transitional period, including several key points relating to elections.
Recent developments indicate a mixed picture. President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi (left) was elected in a non-competitive election designed to gain the country’s endorsement of the GCC Agreement and the transitional framework it outlined.
Even though the transition is underway, Yemen still faces many of the same political challenges around elections that led, in part, to the protests against the Saleh government in the first place. While President Hadi has taken some critical political decisions required to adhere to the GCC Agreement, his primary focus early in his presidency was directed toward consolidating his authority, shuffling military commands, securing domestic political support and finalizing international donor community support. His efforts to further the political transition began to take shape in late 2012. He took preparatory steps for the National Dialogue and appointed commissioners to the Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendum (SCER), the body responsible for implementing elections and whose decisions will directly impact many unresolved political challenges around elections.
Although the GCC Agreement outlines steps that need to be taken, it will be difficult to bridge the gap between political imperatives and practical reform necessary to address concerns related to the electoral system in Yemen. Meanwhile, the accepted transitional schedule is at risk of delay, and it remains to be seen whether President Hadi and the political stakeholders can fulfill its terms leading to the election of a post-transitional government.
This paper outlines the challenges facing Yemen in holding free and fair elections in the transitional period as addressed in the GCC Agreement. It will provide a brief summary of the electoral issues in Yemen prior to the protests and the GCC Agreement, as well as a synopsis of how the GCC Agreement does and does not address these issues. After a brief discussion of elections that have taken place during the transition phase, including identification of problems or weaknesses that emerged, the paper will highlight key issues the Yemeni government must tackle prior to implementation of future elections and provide policy recommendations based on the authors’ understanding of available resources, timelines, and political will among local stakeholders.
Conclusion & Recommendations
Yemen will face significant challenges when it holds democratic elections in the near term. Budgetary constraints, a limited timeframe, weak stakeholder commitment to the proposed reforms, and delays to the transition timeline are all factors that could impact the SCER’s ability to successfully manage electoral processes in the near future. Recent experiences in the Middle East and North Africa region have shown that holding elections in a short timeframe in parallel with the development or reform of the constitution and the electoral legal framework requires significant efforts to meet the public’s expectations and international standards for a free and fair electoral process.
In a deeply divided society such as Yemen – where tribal and political affiliations are key considerations – it is imperative that the country’s transition is managed in a way that is inclusive and consultative and engenders trust across these divisions. Also, it is particularly important for Yemeni citizens to perceive transitional elections as open, free, fair and transparent. As a consequence, flawed electoral processes, even those marked by only minor irregularities, could negatively impact popular participation in future elections and slow or halt the democratic transition.
In response to the uncertainty surrounding the technical preparations for the upcoming electoral events, as well as the timing and sequencing of the transition, this paper presents the following recommendations for the SCER and electoral stakeholders to consider as options to mitigate a variety of challenges:
1) The SCER should identify and secure broad political support for possible delays in the compressed electoral timeline mandated by the GCC Agreement. It is unlikely there will be sufficient time for a constitutional referendum and the subsequent legislative amendments to the electoral legal framework before the scheduled 2014 parliamentary elections. This reality must be acknowledged and addressed before it becomes a political issue that can be exploited by potential spoilers looking to compromise the electoral process. An agreement to amend the GCC Agreement timeline might be necessary to avoid compromising political and voting rights, election preparations, and the integrity of the electoral processes or deviating from international standards.
2) The SCER is encouraged to continue practicing inclusivity through broad consultations with political and civic actors during all phases of the upcoming elections. It is critical in a charged political environment to openly discuss contentious issues, such as boundary delimitation and voter registration issues with stakeholders and agree on mutually acceptable policy solutions.
3) The SCER should improve its outreach to and coordination with civil society organizations in Sana’a and other governorates to best develop and implement targeted and coordinated civic and voter education campaigns. These campaigns should aim to raise Yemeni citizens’ awareness about the referendum and electoral processes leading to the 2014 elections, especially the biometrics voter registration process. Improving public understanding of basic aspects of Yemen’s transitional electoral processes will increase public confidence in these processes and the institutions administering them, especially among marginalized groups such as youth, women and persons with disabilities.
4) If delimitation is required by the new elections law, the SCER should develop and implement delimitation procedures that are open and transparent and meet recognized international standards to improve public and political confidence in the process.
5) The SCER in coordination with the judiciary and the public prosecutor’s office should launch a campaign to improve knowledge concerning election dispute processes, procedures, requirements, contents, and resolutions among election stakeholders. Increased public and stakeholder awareness of Election Day Registration processes, procedures and outcomes involving the courts would help effective and timely resolution of election disputes and contests.
6) The SCER, in coordination with security forces and tribal leaders, should develop and implement a strategy to mitigate the impact of election-related violence and conflict on the electoral process, including on the new voter registration process. Nationwide elections are expensive undertakings; this is especially true in Yemen, which faces significant geographic, security and logistical hurdles. Lack of financial commitment and resources could easily threaten the electoral process by inhibiting sufficient preparation and implementation, and subsequently compromising its efficiency. Therefore, the SCER should immediately identify the costs and resources needed to administer and conduct free, fair and transparent electoral processes. The GoY and the international donor community have committed to providing financial support to the SCER. They must follow through on this commitment soon to allow sufficient time for the SCER’s logistical and electoral planning.
8) The international community must maintain commitment to Yemen’s democratic transformation and continue to provide the necessary financial resources and political weight to ensure adherence to the politically negotiated transition.
This is a brief extract from a longer paper published in collaboration with Stanford University’s Program on Arab Reform and Democracy based in the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.