Federal system could be what Yemen needs

In theory, the idea of a federal government for Yemen appears to be sound. But there is a long uphill road between theory and practice.

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Yemen’s long-running National Dialogue Conference (NDC) has so far offered more recrimination than reconciliation. But this week the NDC seems to have reached a breakthrough that could help Yemen’s 24 million people emerge from two decades of dictatorship and overcome problems rooted in history, geography and economics.

The 550-plus delegates – speaking for political parties, youth groups, women’s groups and more – were convened in March. The NDC was born as the key element of the GCC-sponsored transition plan for Yemen. The conference is scheduled to conclude its work this month, setting the stage for February elections.

Just last month, however, separatist southern delegates walked out of the talks, insisting on a formal government apology for old wrongs (they got one), among other demands.

But then on Wednesday the foreign minister, Abu Bakr Al Kurbi, confirmed that the southerners had returned, and that “there is an agreement on the principle of federalism”. This may be a real breakthrough.

A federal system could in theory suit Yemen’s disparate regions well, though it would offer little help with some of the country’s other discords, such as the standoff over the stature of Sharia.

Hard bargaining will be needed before Yemen becomes a functioning federation.

Dividing powers between a central government and regional ones serves many countries well. A well-run federation is not a zero-sum game – that is, all participants can profit from such a system.

Typically the central government is responsible for defence, foreign affairs and more, while the smaller states or provinces oversee schools, local police and municipal administration. The variations are endless, but every successful federal state begins with a broad national will to live together in peace, to enjoy economies of scale and share cultural or other values. Federalism’s inherent dynamic tension creates a constant push-and-pull between levels of government, and among political parties. It can all work well, if the process is peaceful, and protected by impartial courts and fair elections.

All of that will be a tall order for Yemen. Across the Arab world, political power is often seen as absolute, for one faction to monopolise. Egypt, Iraq, Libya and other Arab states have not been able to summon a spirit of compromise. Can Yemen do better? The prospect is certainly worth exploring.