The first elected Yemeni parliament (1993-1997) is, in many respects, an archetype of political liberalization from above. To the extent that this institution managed to survive, it had to become subservient to the regime that allowed it to come into existence. Yet, despite its significance for democratic-transition research, the Yemeni legislature appears to have received little attention from researchers or academics. This study seeks to address this shortcoming by focusing attention on Yemen’s parliamentary experience during the early phase of democratic consolidation in that country. I will argue, on the basis of extensive research, that the first elected Yemeni parliament majlis al-nuwab suffered from important limitations which, throughout its four-year term, tended to weaken its potential as a democratic institution.
A FRAMEWORK FOR ANALYSIS
There is much in the literature of the past years that can provide criteria designed to evaluate legislatures in diverse national contexts. Nelson Polsby categorizes legislatures according to their power levels, from transformative legislatures with real power to shape legislation to legislatures with no real power or policy impact, but serving as arenas of debate.1 Michael Mezey classifies legislatures into three categories according to their level of performance: 1) a powerful legislature with the ability to modify and reject executive bills; 2) a moderately powerful legislature with the ability to modify but not completely reject government bills; 3) a weak legislature with no ability to modify or to reject government bills.2 Still another set of criteria provided in the literature is designed for assessing the informal functions of legislatures, including the capacity to mobilize popular support, foster legitimacy, represent the people’s concerns, manage conflict, broker interests, recruit leaders and build consensus.3 Together, these criteria provide important indicators for analyzing legislatures on a cross-national basis. The Yemeni case involves a weak legislature, the consequence of which was manifested in the failure of the 1993 majlis to either play its proper role or solve severe political conflicts in the country. As elsewhere in the political system, the legitimacy of this institution was severely weakened by a number of factors, both internal and external, which will be spelled out in this study.
PRELUDE TO UNIFICATION AND DEMOCRATIZATION
Yemen’s attempt at democratization began with the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990. Prior to unification, the south Arabian country had seen no such liberal tradition. Nor did it have any enthusiastic, democratically inspired elements among its elite working for political reform. The Yemeni elite, which had initially emerged in the early 1950s in close collaboration with Arab revolutionary regimes or conservative Islamic movements, had been mostly passive as far as democracy is concerned. The fall of the monarchy in North Yemen in 1962 and the withdrawal of British forces from South Yemen in 1967 led to the establishment of populist, yet authoritarian, regimes. In fact, the common denominator of these two regimes was their hostility to a system of multiple parties and liberal democratic institutions.
In North Yemen, early in the civil war of the 1960s, the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) regime under Brig. Gen. Abdullah al-Sallal formally outlawed all political parties, even though many de-facto pan-Arab nationalists were fighting side by side with the republican regime against their common enemies in the royalist camp. In the South, the pro-Marxist National Liberation Front (NLF) and later the Yemeni Socialist party (YSP) replaced all other political parties – nationalists, Nasserites, Baathists – as the single party in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). True, occasional elections for parliaments or local councils were conducted in both South and North Yemen during the reign of the former PDRY and YAR regimes, but in each case the state made sure it controlled the process and outcome of the election.4
The impetus for political reform began in late 1989 when, in the final phase of the Cold War, Moscow decided to halt its military and economic aid to South Yemen. The leaders of that country decided to embark on a new policy that they hoped would compensate for their dependence on the Soviet Union. The choice was between uniting with North Yemen, which in 1987 had begun exporting moderate quantities of oil, or seeking economic assistance from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. They finally chose to unite with the north to form the Republic of Yemen (ROY). In the meantime, popular pressure in both the YAR and the PDRY provided another equally significant catalyst to the merger, forcing the two governments to begin serious talks on unification. Ironically, it was north Yemeni leader Lt. Gen. Ali Abdullah Saleh (current ROY president) who opposed full merger with South Yemen and offered instead to join in a confederacy. This position, however, was soon reversed when Saleh and south Yemeni leader Ali Salim al-Baidh agreed in late November 1989 to form a unified state with Saleh as president and al-Baidh as vice-president.
A series of meetings then followed between delegates from both governments. Out of these meetings emerged a plan in May 1990 that included prompt unification, a unicameral legislature and a new constitution for united Yemen. Moreover, the bargain struck at these meetings produced a political design for power sharing between the two ruling parties, the Yemeni Socialist party (South Yemen) and the General People’s Congress (North Yemen). In the five-member Presidential Council, the GPC occupied three seats against two for the YSP. Accordingly, Saleh became president of the council from the GPC, whereas al-Baidh became vice-president from the YSP. Additionally, the 39-member cabinet was divided almost evenly between the two parties, and a former south Yemeni leader, Abu-Bakr al-Attas, was chosen as prime minister to head the new government.
In the parliament, the 111-member People’s Supreme Assembly of the former PDRY merged with the 159-member Consultative Assembly of the former YAR to become the new House of Representatives or majlis al-nuwab. An additional 31 members representing various political parties and tribal groups were appointed by the president, raising the number to 301, as required by the constitution. The new majlis chose Yaseen Said Numan (YSP) as its speaker and two other members, including one GPC and one independent, as assistants. By its nature and composition, this majlis was designated an interim legislature until a fully elected one took its place in a period of two and a half years. In reality, the interim period did not come to an end until after three years, when a new majlis was elected in April 1993.
What opposition there was to unification and liberal political reform came from the tribal-Islamic alliance and stemmed from the belief that the new constitution lacked an Islamic character because it made Islam the “main” source rather than the “only” source of legislation.5 The constitution, however, provided no guidance for parliamentary democracy beyond the stipulation that the political system of united Yemen be democratic and composed of three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. There were, to be sure, some vague references to the principles of separation of powers and freedom of political organization. Such references were meant to be vague so as to enable the leaders to manipulate them.6 Indeed, it was not until after the 1994 civil war that the principles of liberal democracy, such as a free-market economy and a multiparty system, came to be incorporated in the constitution of the new state. But even then, the constitution had been amended to give President Saleh a monopoly on power as the head of the executive branch and to abolish the five-member Presidential Council. Thus, Saleh was able to curtail civil liberties and restrain the activities of his opponents.
THE STRUCTURE OF EXECUTIVE-LEGISLATIVE RELATIONS
In deciding the structure of the unified state, the two unifying parties, GPC and YSP, made the majlis inferior, if not totally subordinate, to executive authority. To do so, they made the majlis dependent on the government for its staff and annual budget. In the meantime, parliamentary responsibilities were severely curtailed and limited to a few functions, including debating, amending or approving legislation. What the constitution said about the rights of deputies to introduce their own bills (Article 84) or the rights of the majlis to supervise and control the work of government (Article 61) was simply ignored. In the meantime, the head of state was given considerable power in the new system, with Saleh at the center of decision making and in virtual control of all the work of the government. Not only did he appoint the prime minister and members of the cabinet, he also exercised direct control over the military as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He also decreed laws when the majlis was not in session, although these were dependent on subsequent ratification by the deputies.7
Moreover, as head of the Supreme Judicial Council, Saleh stood to influence the judicial process, a job he exercised effectively by appointing judges loyal to him in the cities, while relocating those who disagreed with him to remote regions of the country. The prime minister and cabinet members, once appointed by the president, did not require confirmation by the majlis. The constitution, nevertheless, gave the majlis the right to overturn the government either by a motion of censure or by a vote of no-confidence. In practice, however, no such vote ever occurred during the life of this parliament. Instead, proxy voting in favor of the government and its policies was the pattern. This continued after the 1993 elections, with the government making the essential decisions and the majlis ratifying them. As we will see in the next sections, the post-1993 majlis, though fully elected by the people, was an uncommonly powerless and inefficient institution.
THE PARLIAMENT AND POLITICAL PARTIES
The 1993 majlis comprised 301 deputies elected on the basis of direct universal suffrage from 301 constituencies in accordance with the single-district-majority voting system. Deputies of the two ruling parties, the General People’s Congress (143 seats) and the Islah party (65 seats) constituted the majority of the Majlis, holding 69 percent of the seats. The remaining seats were divided among the opposition parties and independents, including the Yemeni Socialist party (67 seats), the Arab Socialist Baath party (7 seats), the Haqq party (2 seats), the Nasserite Unitarian Popular Organization (1 seat), the Nasserite Democratic party (1 seat), the Nasserite Tasihih (1 seat) and the Independents (14 seats).8 There were two women in the 1993 majlis, compared to ten in the previous one. Both were elected from the southern region of the country, and both belonged to the Yemeni Socialist party. Sheikh Abdullah Ben-Hussein al-Ahmer, leader of the Islah party and head sheikh of the Hashid tribes (to which Saleh’s Sanhan tribe belonged), became the speaker of the majlis.
GPC deputies were the largest group in the 1993 parliament. With the Islah deputies, they dominated the majlis. Additionally, GPC leaders emphasized loyalty (in this case to the president) as the primary consideration for receiving funds in the next elections. This meant they were expected to show discipline and defend whatever position the government took. There was, nonetheless, a considerable variation in the extent to which GPC deputies took part in the work of the majlis or its committees. Some members were clearly better-equipped than others, in terms of experience and formal education. The majority saw the majlis as an arena of social prestige and, therefore, showed little interest in its everyday operations. Still, the GPC bloc suffered from a number of setbacks as a result of partisan conflict with Islah. What started as a tribal favor from Saleh to his long-time ally al-Ahmer, during the latter’s selection as the speaker, turned out to be problematic for Saleh and his agenda in the majlis.
As the leader of another party, al-Ahmer saw things from a different angle. Indeed, on a number of occasions during the 1995 debate over the structural-reform program, many GPC deputies found it difficult to voice their support for the government of Prime Minister Abdul Aziz Abdul Ghani because the speaker had shown himself to be opposed to IMF and World Bank policy in Yemen. This same thing happened during the deliberations over the 1996 budget, when differences between the GPC and its partner in the coalition government, Islah, resulted in the delay of the state budget for several weeks. Ironically, it was GPC’s previous enemy, the YSP, that came to the rescue, giving the GPC the necessary votes to pass the budget. After this incidence, both Saleh and al-Ahmer took it upon themselves to resolve any conflicts in the agendas of their parties. This, however, augured ill for the majlis as a legislative authority. President Saleh took it to mean a vote of confidence in his decree authority, not to mention that common tribal interests between Saleh and al-Ahmer led to their convergence, sometimes at the expense of their respective parties.
Like the GPC, the Islah played an important role in the 1993 majlis. As a member of the 1993 coalition government, and close ally of Saleh’s General People’s Congress, the Islah made the most of this relationship in the majlis. Initially, the Islah’s morale had been boosted by its 1993 electoral success, when it not only emerged from a vacuum, but was able to break into the GPC/YSP monopoly on power. With 65 seats in the majlis, the Islah became the second major player in Yemen. Following the civil war of 1994, the Islah replaced the YSP as the sole partner with the GPC in the coalition government. More important, the Islah came to the majlis with an agenda of its own. Throughout the period between the 1993 and 1997 elections, members of the Islah bloc in the majlis left their fingerprints on almost all aspects of the legislative process. Not only were they able to change the character of the constitution, making Sharia the source of all legislation (Article no. 3); they also made several changes in the laws to fit their ultra-conservative agenda. Law No. 12 on crimes and punishments was a clear example. The Islah succeeded in incorporating into this law a number of punishments such as flogging, cross-amputation and the death penalty. Apostasy was made a crime punishable by death.9 The Islah could not have succeeded in making these changes without the help of President Saleh and their leader, al-Ahmer.
Coming in third place as a major power in Yemen and important force in the 1993 majlis was the Yemeni Socialist party. Like the GPC, which ruled North Yemen alone prior to unification, the YSP was the single ruling party in the former PDRY. During the interim majlis and for a short period during the life of the 1993 majlis, up to the civil war of 1994, YSP deputies played an active role in parliamentary deliberations. They brought new issues to the majlis, including some that were highly relevant to the problems of the nation. They also introduced various substantive motions, and as questioners of government officials they tended to be more active than GPC or Islah deputies. At times they appeared to play the role of both government and opposition. After the 1994 civil war, the role of YSP deputies declined significantly in the majlis, due to their party’s defeat in that war and the subsequent loss of its position in the coalition government. As a result, from July 1994 onwards, the YSP came to be identified mainly with the opposition.
Finally, there was the parliamentary grouping of three small parties and independents, including Baathists, Nasserites and Haqq (party of Truth) deputies. This group, in addition to the YSP, constituted the opposition bloc in the majlis. The same group also depended on the YSP for leadership in and outside the parliament. Some deputies within the group distinguished themselves as aggressive critics of the government, though not of Lt. Gen. Saleh or members of his immediate circle. The most critical by far was Abdul Habib Salim, a deputy from Taiz, who on numerous occasions accused top Yemeni officials of corruption and anti-democratic practices. Other than that, the role of this group was limited to debating with other deputies or providing minor input into the legislative process.
REPRESENTATION IN THE PARLIAMENT
To what extent did the 1993 majlis reflect the variety of social and economic interests in Yemeni society? How did the deputies represent the views and interests of their constituents? A parliamentary survey conducted by The Yemen Times in November 1993 drew sketches of the background of deputies in this majlis.10 The survey identified four major groups according to their social and occupational backgrounds. The largest single group comprised traditional judges and lawyers, followed by local sheikhs, army and security officers and, last of all, government bureaucrats. No deputies were identified as tribesmen or farmers, though these groups constitute the core of Yemeni society. With regard to educational background, the survey showed that at least 60 percent of the deputies had formal education, and about half of them had completed education at or above university level. There were 85 bachelor’s degrees, 31 master’s, and 27 Ph.D.’s. The other half (150 out of 301 deputies) had been exposed to Quranic or other types of informal schooling.
This absence of a close identity of economic and social interests between the deputies and their constituents was an important factor behind the lack of representation in the 1993 majlis. There were, however, other factors affecting parliamentary representation. Perhaps the most important was the fact that the majority of deputies had weak ties to their constituencies, judging from the low level of communication between the two groups. Aside from occasional visits by these deputies to their districts, there was no system of effective communication linking the deputies to their constituents, either through mail or any other channel. During the interim majlis, the majority of deputies avoided visiting their district, some in order to escape the pressure of their constituents, who demanded services for their areas, others out of negligence or lack of accountability. This also proved to be the case with the 1993 majlis, though in mid1995 the majlis made arrangements for several of its members to visit their districts during one of its recesses.11 Another factor behind the failure of deputies to fulfill their representational role was the government’s deliberate effort to isolate these deputies from their constituents. The government often did so by encouraging local sheikhs to appeal directly to the president on matters related to their areas. This made these sheikhs, rather than the deputies, the true representatives in the eyes of their people. These factors, as valid during the interim majlis as the 1993 majlis, had a negative impact on parliament-society relations.
DECLINING POPULAR SUPPORT
As representation declined, the legitimacy and popular support of the majlis declined as well. To be sure, survey data on popular support for the 1993 majlis are generally scarce. However, lack of support for the institution could be inferred from the manner in which Yemenis spoke of regime laxity and corruption and the failure of the majlis to make a difference in their lives. The expression of apathy and resentment toward participatory democracy also pervaded the discourse of the Yemeni political elite. Abundant references to the lack of authenticity of the parliament and political parties in the language used by the elite point to an antidemocratic tendency that must be considered a trait of Yemeni elite culture. What sources of support there were for the majlis and democracy in general came from the educated middle class as well as from a small circle of Western-educated intellectuals and the few independent newspapers that emerged after unification. The military remained hostile to a full-fledged democracy as did some tribal and conservative forces. This limited the country’s ability to make true democratic choices, including the choice of leadership change. Still, one has to account for the lack of popular support of the 1993 majlis as a function of the absence of effective parliamentary oversight over government operations and practices. At the very least, the absence of an effective committee system in the majlis reduced it in the eyes of the Yemeni people. Indeed, in late 1994, during a parliamentary debate, the majlis became convinced of the need to revitalize its committee system as a way to supervise the functions of the government. Despite this recommendation, the majlis took no action to ensure it would be carried out in practice.
Most Yemenis believed that the parliament was not the place where policy was decided. Some, like Omar al-Jawi (d.,1997), former leader of the Tajammu al-Wahdawi party, viewed the majlis merely as an extension of executive authority rather than a separate or co-equal branch of the government.12 Such also was the view of many intellectuals, who thought that, because of the tribal nature of the regime, the majlis had been extremely ineffective and played no significant part in Yemeni politics.13 A case in point was the political crisis of 1993, which, in the absence of an effective role by the majlis, escalated into a full-scale civil war in May 1994.
The crisis began in October 1993 when Vice-President al-Baidh returned from a private visit to the United States and decided to reside permanently in Aden, former capital of South Yemen, citing, among other things, the failure of the GPC and President Saleh to bring to trial those responsible for the assassination of a number of YSP leaders. The GPC saw this as a clear challenge to the authority of Saleh and accused the YSP of planning a breakup of united Yemen.14 By late 1993, the crisis had escalated to the point where no action, short of parliament intervention, appeared sufficient to defuse the crisis. In response, the majlis formed a fact-finding committee headed by the speaker, al-Ahmer, to investigate the situation. By early November 1993, the committee had completed its work and issued a statement calling on the two antagonists, the GPC and the YSP, to resolve their differences through the resumption of political dialogue.15 As was expected, the call fell on deaf ears. Instead, Prime Minister Al-Attas told the majlis to stay out of politics and pay attention to its own business.16 As the crisis intensified in the early weeks of 1994, and as the military became a factor, Yemenis looked to the majlis to intervene in order to prevent conflict. To their frustration, the majlis took no such initiative. Instead, it split into factions that did nothing but argue about who was to blame for the crisis in the first place. With the majlis so divided and mediation efforts failing, the situation deteriorated into civil war.
THE VIEW FROM THE PARLIAMENT
Whether the majlis was considered a salient political institution by the deputies themselves is not known. However, many held negative views of the workings of the institution. During a symposium held in Sanaa in April 1995, many deputies expressed disappointment with the performance of the majlis. A parliamentarian and well-known businessman, Mohamed Abdu Saeed (GPC), was the first to point out that the record of performance of the majlis had been less than satisfactory.17 Another deputy, Ahmed Qaid Sawailih (YSP), was quoted by The Yemen Times as saying that “the violation of regulations and the internal by-laws of the House [by the Speaker’s office] reached an extent where the parliament was totally paralyzed.”18 Such also was the view of Deputy Ahmed al-Sallami (YSP). The majlis, al-Sallami said, “[had] become a mere extension of the political machine and will, as it has no independent decision-making base.” The future of the country, he stressed, “depends on how much independence this parliament has in pursuing its work and in contributing towards the proper evolution of [the] country.”19
A different view, however, was expressed by Abdullah Saatar (Islah), who criticized his fellow parliamentarians for many of the majlis’s problems. To him, the rate of absence among deputies was particularly annoying, but he added, “It is unfair to say the whole experiment was not satisfactory.”20 The most negative by far was Deputy Abdul Habib Salim (d.,1996, independent). The majlis, he thought, “has actually served as a crisis-importing corporation. All government and state issues brought to the parliament left the House more complicated and difficult.” I can’t remember,” he said, “that any of the major problems facing our country had ever been solved by the parliament.”21 In another interview in Al Shura, Salim was quoted as saying, “I personally do not feel that I am a member of the majlis, except when I pass through the checkpoints at city entrances and ride in the streets at night, or when I travel with reduced air tickets and carry the diplomatic passport. But inside the majlis, I feel I am merely a subject of Sheikh al-Ahmer or an employee of his deputy, Mohamed al-Khadim al-Wajeeh.”22 It was no surprise that Salim resigned from the majlis in April 1995, citing, among other things, the mismanagement of the majlis and its failure to take its proper place in the political system. A few months later, the 34-year-old Salim died of a heart attack.
Aside from these criticisms, a common complaint among Yemeni deputies was that the secretariat of the majlis was limiting their access to important information by not allowing them to receive detailed minutes of the sessions. Deputies were given only summary reports of the minutes. The secretariat justified that on the basis of the high cost of producing and distributing the minutes to all 301 members.23 In July 1995, the deputies arrived at the majlis for a regular session only to be told by the guards that it had been canceled. Many deputies wondered who, in fact, other than the deputies themselves, had the right to cancel a formal session of the parliament. That same month, the speaker’s office decided to send the majlis into a recess and to limit parliamentary sessions to the first half of each month. Many deputies described the decision as a “compulsory vacation” because they were not consulted. Nor were they asked to give their approval of the recess. The speaker’s office explained that it had made that decision in order to allow deputies to fulfill their duties toward their constituents.24
SOURCES OF WEAKNESS
How the 1993 Yemeni majlis came to be so troubled by perceptions of weakness and even chaos is a question of both attitudes and unfulfilled expectations. One factor was the poor performance of the parliamentary committees and, in particular, the high rate of absence among committee members. Available data from the majlis shows that of the 17 standing committees that existed at the time, only two, the Committee on Islamic Sharia and the Committee on Public Liberties and Human Rights, had a record of attendance above 50 percent. The remaining 15 committees had a record of absence above 53 percent, with the Committee on Complaints having the highest rate of absentees (85 percent), followed by the Committee on Public Services (70 percent) and the Committee on Agriculture and Water Supply (63 percent). This data covered the period between July 1993 and September 1994. As for committee activities during the same period, the data showed a variation in the number of meetings held by each of the 17 committees. The highest record went to the Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, which held 135 meetings, an average of nine sessions per month. However, the majority of committees (11 out of 17) averaged less than five sessions per month, and some, including the Committee on Education and the Committee on Complaints, did not discuss or approve any legislative bills throughout the entire period.25
A second factor behind the weakness of the 1993 majlis may be attributed to the lack of initiative within the parliament and, in particular, the slow pace of legislation during the first half of its term. Contrary to Article 84 of the Constitution, there were no major efforts by the deputies to either introduce or approve private bills. This applied to the interim as well as to the 1993 parliaments. As to the dynamics of legislation, it seemed that the total number of laws enacted during the interim majlis, between May 1990 and April 1993, was comparatively higher than the total number of laws enacted by the 1993 majlis. For example, the interim majlis under its speaker, Dr. Numan, passed an average 17 laws a year, including 40 passed during the first and second legislative periods between 1990 and 1992, and nearly 10 laws during the third legislative period up to March 1993. This number declined significantly during the first legislative period of the 1993 majlis. Indeed, available data shows that only six laws were passed by the majlis during the legislative period between May 15, 1993, and March 15, 1994.26 Additionally, of all the bills introduced by the government, some passed with minor changes, but not one was rejected. The majority of bills lacked prolonged or constructive debate to insure their merit. Some bills were known to have been rushed through and passed in a matter of days.
A third factor behind the weakness of the 1993 majlis can be attributed to the use, and often abuse, of decree powers by the country’s head of state. This was clearly demonstrated by the number of laws decreed by the president. Such a number, undoubtedly, exceeded constitutional limits and by far surpassed the number of laws passed by the majlis itself. During the interim majlis, president Saleh decreed more than 50 laws during the first two years alone (May 1990 and May 1992).27 Indeed, on one occasion during the Ramadan recess between March and April 1991, Saleh decreed 31 laws, and the majlis had to ratify them after the holiday was over.28 During the next Ramadan recess, between March and April 1992, Saleh issued 34 decrees, many of which aimed at approving state loans or treaties with other nations.29 This same pattern of decreeing laws also continued during the 1993 majlis. According to available data, nearly 70 presidential decrees were issued between May 1994 and April 1995. Later, during the 1996 Ramadan recess, Saleh decreed 13 laws provoking some deputies who thought that the president had abused his power.30 However, the majlis “did not challenge the executive over these violations of the spirit, if not the letter, of the constitution.”31
A fourth factor behind the weakness of the 1993 majlis was the poor organization and staffing of the institution.32 To be sure, there were 350 employees, most of them recruited from the civil service. In general, those employees were under-qualified and lacked any specific training. Some were believed to be the government’s watchdogs, assigned to obstruct parliamentary activities and to withhold basic information from the deputies.
Professionalism was entirely missing; discipline was almost nonexistent. Except for members of the secretariat who attended sessions on the floor or served in the speaker’s office, the majority of the employees used to leave the majlis very early and then return to sign out at the end of the day. Not surprisingly, most of the employees were given less than $100 salary per month. The most favored groups in the majlis were members of the Sanaa elite, who, because of favoritism by the speaker or connection with the Political Security Organization, were given most of the privileges: promotions, overseas scholarships and foreign trips with parliamentary delegates. The parliament building in the middle of Sanaa provided little space for committee chairs and parliamentary staff and no office space at all for the deputies. The parliamentary library had few materials available for legislative use. Important documents and even tapes of televised sessions were kept in secrecy. Access to important information was made difficult for most deputies, except committee chairs. The opposition blamed this situation on the authoritarian nature of the government and its attempt to control information as a way to prevent true democratic change.
By the standard of established parliaments, the1993 Yemeni majlis was a weak institution. Neither Mezey’s criteria for powerful legislatures nor any of the standard parliamentary functions – representation, mobilization of popular support, consensus building, conflict management – were quite applicable to this parliament. Still, the very fact that the majlis managed to survive against all odds was in itself a positive development. For one thing, the majlis represented an important forum where national issues came to be debated and many of the nation’s demands became known to the government. For another, it exposed the many obstacles Yemen faces in attempting to confront its authoritarian tradition and build a modern system of democratic government.
Yemen held a second election for parliament in 1997. Although the new majlis provided continuity, there is no evidence to suggest that its experience has been any different from that of the previous majlis. Progress towards democratization in other areas, including transparency and reform of state institutions, has all but reversed. While rhetorically committed to democracy, Yemeni leaders have been extremely reluctant to support continued reform of the political system. This led an August 2000 report by the Washington based National Democratic Institute (NDI) to conclude that “Yemen’s democratic progress has stalled,” and that “the momentum for reform that existed several years ago has unfortunately diminished.”33 The report cited as evidence serious flaws in the voter-registration system, absence of sustained political interest by the government, and serious erosion of public confidence in the entire democratic system.34
More important, recent changes in the Yemeni constitution, including extending the terms of office of the majlis and the president, and giving President Saleh additional powers to dissolve the parliament (in exchange for abolishing his decree powers), as well as authority to appoint a senate branch to be added to the legislature, have all added to the list of reversals of the democratic trend. The question is now, can Yemen regain the momentum for political reform that began after unification? Only time will tell.
1 Nelson Polsby, “Legislatures,” ed. Philip Norton, Legislatures (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 128.
2 Michael Mezey, “Classifying Legislatures,” in Norton, op. cit., pp. 155-56.
3 See Richard A. Styskal, “Some Aspects of Group Representation in the Philippine Congress,” eds. G. R. Buntan and Chang Lim Kim, Legislative Systems in Developing Countries (Durham: Duke University Press, 1975), p. 234.
4 For a background on Yemen’s parliamentary experiment prior to unification, see Abdo Baaklini, Guilain Denoeux and Robert Springborg, Legislative Politics in the Arab World: The Resurgence of Democratic Institutions (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1999), pp. 202-205.
5 For a discussion of the politics and forces during this period, see Sheila Carapico, Civil Society in Yemen: The Potitical Economy of Activism in Modern Arabia (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 135-169. See also Robert Burrowes, “The Republic of Yemen: The Politics of Unification and Civil War, 1989-1995,” ed. Michael C. Hudson, Middle East Dilemma: The Politics and Economics of Arab Integration (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 187-213.
6 According to Michael C. Hudson: “the democratic model to which both sides agreed in 1990 was very much a solution based on convenience rather than in principle.” See Hudson’s article, “Obstacles to Democratization in the Middle East,” Contention, Winter 1996, p. 90.
7 The scope of the powers delegated to Saleh by the Constitution is staggering. It is important, however, to emphasize that since unification, Saleh’s use of decree authority has exceeded all constitutional limits. See Baaklini et al., Legislative Politics in the Arab World, p. 207.
8 Nashat Majlis al-Nuwab Khilal al-Fatrah 15/5/1993-15/3/1995: Activities of the House of Representatives, (Sanaa: al-Afaq Littibaah wa al-Nashr, publication of Majlis al-Nuwab, 1994).
9 See details of this law in al-Qawanin allati Aqarraha Majlis al-Nuwab [The Laws approved by the House of Representatives] (Sanaa: publication of Majlis al-Nuwab, 1994).
10 See Yemen Times, November 14, 1993.
11 Al-Thawri, July 13, 1995.
12 Yemen Times, May 22, 1995.
13 See, for example, comments made by journalist Ahmed al-Soufi to Yemen Times. The ruling politicians, he said, “were able to sell certain candidates they nominated to the public during the elections. Once elected, those individuals were able to sell the public and the country back to the politicians,” Yemen Times, May 15, 1995.
14 An excellent account and analysis of the GPC-YSP relationship and the circumstances leading to the 1994 civil war can be found in Michael C. Hudson, “Bipolarity, Rational Calculation and War in Yemen,” Arab Studies Journal, (Spring 1995, pp. 9-19. See also Mark N. Katz, “External Powers and the Yemeni Civil War,” ed. Jamal S. al-Suwaidi, The Yemeni Civil War of 1994 (Saqi Books / Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, 1995) pp. 81-93; and Sheila Carapico, “The War of the Two Alies,” Middle East Report, September/ October 1994.
15 See the committee statement in Al-Mithaq, November 8, 1993. For more on the committee’s findings, see Taqreer Allajnah al-Mukallafah min Majlis al-Nuwab Bemutabaat wa Takassi Alhakaik houl al-Azmah Assyassyah Arrahinah [Report of the Committee appointed by the House of Representatives to investigate the current political crisis] (Sanaa: publication of Majlis al-Nuwab, November 5, 1993).
16 Al-Thawri, November 11, 1993.
17 Yemen Times, April 24, 1995.
18 Yemen Times, April 24, 1995.
19 Yemen Times, May 15, 1995.
20 Yemen Times, May 15, 1995.
21 Yemen Times, April 24, 1995.
22 Al-shura, December 18, 1994.
23 See an interview with deputy speaker Mohamed al-Khadim al-Wajeeh in Al-Shorawi, (published by Majlis al-Nuwab) March 19, 1995.
24 Al-Thawri, July 13, 1995.
25 See “Activities of the Permanent Committees, July 1, 1993-September 30, 1994” in Al-Shorawi, December 15, 1995. See also issues of the same paper, January 16, 1995; February 4, 1995; and April 16, 1995.
26 See al-Qawanin allati Agarraha Majlis al-Nuwab [The Laws approved by the House of Representatives, (Sanaa: publications of Majlis al-Nuwab], March 11, 1991; March 11, 12, 1992; March 11, May 15, 1993; and March 15, 1994.
27 See an interview with the speaker, Dr. Yasseen Saeed Noman in Addimocratyah (publication of Majlis alNuwab), September/October 1992, p. 10.
28 Ibid., June 1991, pp. 61-66.
29 Ibid., May/June 1992, pp. 57-61. See also Baaklini et al., Legislative Politics in the Arab World, p. 207.
30 Yemen Times, March 11, 1996. Indeed, one of the deputies, Ali al-Wafi, criticized legislation by decrees as a violation of the Constitution. See his article in Al-Shorawi, February 4, 1995.
31 Baaklini et al., Legislative Politics in the Arab World, p. 208.
32 An early account of the internal problems of the Yemeni parliament can be found in Abdo Baaklini, “Building the Legislative Institution in Yemen,” a report submitted to USAID, February 13, 1991.
33 Statement of the NDI Pre-Election Delegation to Yemen’s April 2001 Parliamentary Election, Sanaa, August 6, 2000.
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