The ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) in Yemen reached an agreement with the opposition Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) on February 24 to postpone the parliamentary election scheduled for April 27, 2009 for another two years. After more than two years of contentious debate between the two parties concerning reform of the electoral system, this joint statement would appear to draw Yemen out of its interparty crisis for the present. It also constitutes an apparent victory for the opposition.

Although the GPC had already initiated the electoral process (more than a million new voters were registered and ministers had resigned in order to prepare their campaigns), the recent agreement now triggers a process of constitutional amendment. The agreement states that political parties represented in parliament (the GPC and the JMP coalition, which includes among others al-Islah, the Yemeni Socialist Party, the Nasserite Unionist People’s Organization, and the Arab Socialist Baath Party) request that article 65 of the constitution be amended to authorize a two-year extension of the current six-year parliamentary term. The amendment will need the approval of three-fourths of parliament but does not require a popular referendum. During the two-year extension, political parties and civil society organizations will propose reform of the political and electoral systems, and parties in parliament will complete their dialogue on amendment of the electoral law and establishment of a new Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendum.
This last minute agreement has put an end to six months of escalating rhetoric between ruling and opposition parties. The core of the dispute between GPC and JMP representatives concerned the aborted reform of the electoral system and the electoral commission. After talks in parliament collapsed in August 2008, the GPC refused further negotiation, arguing that the first-past-the-post single candidate system best suits Yemen, while the JMP threatened to boycott future elections if a party list system was not introduced. The GPC maintained it was upholding Yemeni law and the constitution, while the JMP said it stood for transparent and pluralist elections. The ruling party insisted that the elections must be held on time, under the existing system, or the government would be unconstitutional. For its part, the opposition coalition positioned itself as the gatekeeper of pluralism and free and fair elections, saying it would not participate in what would be no more than “GPC internal elections.” GPC officials, picturing themselves as victims of opposition ill-will, announced that no further concessions would be made, while the JMP countered that it would henceforth devote more attention to internal conflicts in Yemen (such as the Southern movement and the Saada war), which have become major sources of insecurity for Yemenis. The GPC threatened that elections would take place with or without the JMP, even suggesting that the opposition boycott could afford extra opportunities for women and civil society representatives.
Why then did the GPC suddenly give in? Apparently the cost of contesting the elections alone, or at least without its institutionalized and legitimate opponent, was too high. President Ali Abdullah Salih and his party could not afford to hold such questionable polls in view of the country’s unsteady internal situation and pressures by international actors. Rather, the ruling elite seem to have opted for inclusion of the opposition and pacification of the political scene. GPC officials characterized the decision as having been taken with the interests of the nation in mind.
In the ranks of the JMP, members rejoiced over the opposition’s first successful boycott offensive. In fact, the elections’ postponement can be considered as a setback for the GPC insofar as it constitutes a concession made by a weakened power to a maturing opposition. This reverse, which also grants the GPC two extra years of domination in parliament, highlights the relative weakness of the ruling party (whose orientations may be reversed by a single presidential move) and reminds us that Yemeni politics ultimately depend on interpersonal relations and interactions within a limited elite.
The parliamentary process has been launched, and in a few months, political parties and civil society representatives of NGOs will initiate a large debate on how to reform the political and electoral system. It remains to be seen whether Yemeni political parties can break old patterns in order to negotiate and mobilize around new electoral rules.
Marine Poirier is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Aix-Marseille and a researcher at the French Center for Archeology and Social Sciences in Sana’a.