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Yemen's Constitutional Referendum and Local Elections
Human Rights Watch Backgrounder February 2001

Political activists, human rights defenders and journalists have been subject to harassment and detention in the period leading up to the elections.

If Yemeni voters cast a "yes" vote in the constitutional referendum on February 20, Field Marshall Ali Abdallah Saleh's term as president will be extended for two years and enable him to be re-elected in 2006 for another seven years. President Saleh seized power in 1978 and was first elected president by popular vote in 1999. The government states that the referendum on constitutional amendments and the local elections, scheduled for the same day, will advance Yemen's "democratic experience." Yemeni critics say it is essentially meant to strengthen the power of the president and the ruling party, the General People's Congress (GPC).

The Republic of Yemen has been hailed as a showcase for democracy in the Arab World since the political opening that accompanied the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990. However, unresolved political differences resulted in a full-fledged civil war between the forces loyal to the former states in early May 1994, and southern leaders declared secession in late May 1994. The Sana'a government restored unity by force in July 1994, and heavily restricted freedom of association and expression. The Ministry of Information dragged opposition and independent journalists and publishers into court, usually on defamation charges. The Political Security Organization, an agency that reported directly to the president and operated without judicial authorization, harassed and imprisoned activists and journalists critical of the government.

Recent elections have been praised more by outside observers than Yemeni monitors themselves. The 1997 parliamentary elections were boycotted by the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) and a number of smaller parties. US observers judged the voting as "generally fair and free," but local monitors deplored the rigging of voter registration and other irregularities. In the first presidential elections in autumn 1999, President Saleh won 96.3% of the popular vote. Former President Clinton commended Yemen for "its democratic achievements" when Saleh visited the US in April 2000.

Constitutional Amendments

The proposed constitutional amendments will extend the parliamentary term from four to six years and abolish the president's right to issue decree laws when parliament is in recess. However, the amendments will also lengthen the presidential term from five to seven years. This would enable President Saleh, serving uninterruptedly since 1978, to rule until 2013, granted reelection in 2006. The amendments also authorize the president to appoint a 111 member Consultative (shura) Council. The precise relationships between the elected parliament and the shura Council, and the shura Council and the executive respectively are not specified in the amendments. The opposition is apprehensive that the appointed body will be a means of exercising presidential control over parliament.

Local Elections Administrative decentralization has long been on the political agenda in Yemen but the election of local councils was put off during the first ten years of the Republic. After protracted and heated public debates parliament passed Law 4/2000 on Local Authority in February 2000. This law affirmed the election of local councils, but allowed for the appointment of their chairpersons by the president and did not grant any substantial decision making power to the councils.

In Tuesday's election, 26,467 candidates (among them only 145 women) are competing for local councils seats. Some smaller parties have decided to boycott the elections, claiming that voter registration was rigged. An account in the usually reliable independent al-Ayyam showed that in eleven out of twenty provinces the number of registered male voters was as much as forty-six percent higher than the number of eligible voters - i.e. those over eighteen years of age. Since voting registers have officially not been updated since the presidential elections in 1999, all persons who since turned eighteen will not be able to vote. Twenty-two lawyers have filed a suit against the Supreme Elections Committee (SEC) asking for the suspension of the local elections and claiming that the SEC, nominally an independent body entrusted with voter registration and election monitoring, has failed to review and amend the registers as mandated by Article 11 (1) of the Elections Law. The opposition also claimed the SEC denied them an appropriate share on the committees set up to monitor voting and counting.

According to Yemeni press reports, opposition candidates have been subject to harassment by the authorities and a number of candidates are expected to file suits. The Criminal Investigation Department briefly detained Nasir al-Aulaqi, head of the legal Unionist Nasirist Party, and searched his house for material pertaining to a "forbidden organization". The opposition paper al-Wahdawi claims that the SEC issued a directive advising the monitoring committees to prevent campaigning for a "no" vote in the referendum.

Restrictions on the Freedom of Expression

Political activists, human rights defenders and journalists have been subject to harassment and detention in the period leading up to the elections. On a number of occasions thousands of citizens in the southern province of al-Dhali'a demonstrated peacefully against repeated arbitrary detentions and unwarranted house-searches. Hundreds of demonstrators were picked up, and the organizers detained for extended periods and reportedly ill-treated. In May 2000, six activists were charged with "disrupting public order by calling a demonstration and dispersing material critical of Yemeni unity." Speaker of Parliament Abdallah Al-Ahmar said, according to al-Ayyam, that these popular protests "do not need to be dealt with by law nor by parliament" and asked the "executive to take a firm stand against these accusations and consider them plots against the nation."

Journalists have been subject to restriction and harassment, and officials have brought defamation suits against at least seven opposition and independent papers in 2000. The opposition weekly al-Shura was suspended for more than a year until August 2000. The vaguely worded Article 103 of the Press and Publications Law 25/1990 outlaws "direct and personal criticism of the head of state" and publication of material which "might spread a spirit of dissent and division among the people" or "leads to the spread of ideas contrary to the principles of the Yemeni Revolution, prejudicial to national unity or distorting the image of the Yemeni, Arab or Islamic heritage." Defamation, as the other offenses punishable by a fine or a prison term, is not legally defined.