Yemeni democratic reform was lauded following the 2006 presidential election when a credible opposition candidate captured 22 percent of the vote.  In a region dominated by single-party authoritarian regimes, some experts concluded that the opposition’s success made this the most significant election in the Middle East. But did the election truly indicate a shift toward substantial political reform, or was the regime simply allowing minor electoral freedoms while seeking to maintain the status quo?  What can outsiders do to help facilitate democratic reforms in Yemen? 

In this Carnegie Paper, Evaluating Political Reform in Yemen, Sarah Phillips, a specialist on Yemeni politics, assesses the significance of Yemen’s limited democratic reforms since national unification and recommends steps that Yemeni and foreign actors can take to promote more meaningful reform.

Phillips contends that the regime has built its political survival on the same system that could undermine its future.  If Yemen is to remain a viable state, aggressive political and economic reform must weaken the current patronage system and the legal inconstancies that stem from it—which Phillips believes are the biggest obstacles to reform.

The Yemeni government’s need for international donors opens up opportunities for foreign governments to influence further reform.  “If significant political changes are to occur in Yemen, it is primarily for the Yemeni regime to choose.  However, the West should still apply consistent pressure in this direction and work to build the capacity of domestic actors who share this goal,” says Phillips.


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About the Author
Sarah Phillips is a Ph.D. candidate at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australian National University, where she taught Arab politics. She is currently working as a consultant on regional stability and political reform dynamics, and is preparing a book manuscript from her doctoral research. Phillips specializes in Yemeni politics, political participation, democratization and reform in the Arab world, and the role of Islamists in these processes.