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Yemen heading for civil war over reforms, says analyst

A coalition of six opposition parties have called for boycott of elections unless political and electoral reforms are not discussed but the government plans to go ahead.
Riot police were posted outside the parliament building in Sana'a this week to prevent opposition protests.
Riot police were posted outside the parliament building in Sana'a this week to prevent opposition protests.

SANA'A // Yemen faces possible civil war if the government goes ahead with plans to conduct parliamentary elections in April without addressing the opposition's demands for election reforms, a political analyst based in the capital said on Tuesday.

Mohammed al Dhaheri, a professor of political science at Sana'a University, said: "If the ruling party decides to go ahead and copy the recent Egyptian electoral experience in a tribal-dominated and heavily armed society, I am afraid this is likely to push the country into a civil war."

The Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) - an opposition coalition of six parties that includes Islah, Yemen's main Islamist party, and the Socialist Party - threatened on Monday to boycott parliamentary elections in April and called for protests against the ruling General People's Congress (GPC) plan to hold the poll without completing a dialogue on political and electoral reforms. The GPC had said it would move ahead with the elections in April to avoid a constitutional vacuum.

The opposition leaders said during a press conference on Monday that by passing the electoral law amendment on Saturday, the ruling party has violated a 2009 accord providing for dialogue on political reforms.

The GPC and JMP agreed in February 2009 to postpone the parliamentary election for two years to allow dialogue on political reforms, including a shift from a presidential regime to a proportional representation parliamentary system and further decentralisation of government. However, the two sides' dialogue on the issues to be addressed before the 2011 election has reached a deadlock, despite an additional accord in July to provide a chance for all political parties and non-governmental organisations to discuss the necessary constitutional amendments for developing and improving the political system.

The election law amendment that the parliamentary majority endorsed on Saturday stipulated that the supreme elections commission be composed of judges rather than delegates represented in parliament as has been the case.

"The JMP is seeking to drag the country into a constitutional vacuum … through delaying the parliamentary elections and the presidential election [set for 2013]," Sadeq Abu Rass, GPC assistant secretary general, said during a press conference on Tuesday.

Since the unification between the North and South in 1990, Yemen has been able to hold only three successful parliamentary elections: in 1993, 1997 and 2003, all of which the GPC won.

In addition to juggling an insurgency in the north and a separatist movement in the south, the Yemeni government is struggling to combat a resurgent wing of al Qa'eda as well as increasing economic hardship.

"The country cannot afford more problems. The situation is tense in the north and another fight is likely," Mr al Dhaheri said. "The southern movement protests are growing violent ... I am sure the opposition can move the street, if this is the option of Islah. Moving the street in an armed society where the culture of peaceful fight is still absent, the outcome will be grave and will push to further instability."

However, Ali Saif Hasan, the chairman of the Political Development Forum, a Sana'a-based think tank, dismissed the possibility of violent confrontations.

"I expect the coming few months prior to elections will be tense and the JMP will stage protests and rallies but I do not expect big violence," Mr Hasan said.

"The GPC decision is not final and there is a possibility for reconsidering it, particularly if the reaction of the JMP is strong," he added.

An example of growing tension between the opposition and the ruling party was the attack on Sultan al Attwani, the secretary general of the Nasserite Unionist Party and an MP, yesterday in the capital Sana'a.

The Nasserite party, a JMP affiliate, said in a statement that armed men attacked Mr Attwani while he was driving home from parliament. The statement blamed the government for the attack and warned of the consequences of overdoing such practices and delay in taking an action against the perpetrators, and bringing them to justice.

However, Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen specialist at Princeton University in the United States, said both GPC and JMP were in a difficult position.

"I think at the moment the GPC and the JMP are engaged in a staring contest to see which one blinks first. Both are making threats and challenging the other and both are in a difficult position. It will be difficult for the GPC to have a fair election if the JMP doesn't participate, but if the JMP doesn't participate it risks political irrelevancy," Mr Johnsen said in an e-mail.

"There are still a number of months before the elections and a lot can happen in that time. At this point talk of taking to the streets is premature, but if both sides insist on digging in their heels then it could be a completely different situation in the spring," Mr Johnsen added.

Published: December 16, 2010 04:00 AM

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