January 1, 2011

Yemen’s Political Whirlwind: Opposition Shocked At Amendments

“The stability of the country necessitates that he should stay in power. He is accepted by everybody inside and outside the country.”

- Sultan al-Barakani, head of the General People’s Congress, speaking of President Saleh Ali Abdullah as the GPC attempts to eliminate presidential term limits

"The U.S. call, which urged all Yemeni parties to postpone the parliamentary procedure and come back to the negotiating table in the best interest of the Yemeni people, was irresponsible and did not live up to diplomacy norms or wisdom."

- Anonymous GPC official on the party’s website, also condemning the State Department's warning as, "interference in the internal affairs of peoples and undermines national sovereignty as the parliament in any country represent the will and choice of people."

“[Constitutional amendments] "will result in a complete break between the north and south and will destroy any hope of partnership.”

- Ali Acshal, a southern member of the the Islamist Al-Islah (Reform) Party, one of two opposition parties in Yemen

"If the ruling party goes ahead with these amendments... it will cause disorder in the country and open it up to foreign interference.

- Ali Abed Rabbo al-Qadi, who heads a bloc of five independent MPs

Despite assurances by GPC officials that they were simply considering the amendment, Yemen’s parliament voted in favor of abolishing presidential term limits. Blaming the opposition for not showing up to debate and ignoring Washington’s warning, Sana’a is dangerously eroding the conditions for April’s parliamentary election.

Although the proposed amendment will be further debated in March and supposedly put to national referendum, many opposition figures believe Saleh will manipulate the vote in his favor.

One GPC official even told the Yemen Post that, “Most likely within 60 days the amendments will be passed, and Yemen will enter a new phase of positive change.” Because of international pressure, he said, the government opted to debate the measure for 60 days instead of approving them directly. But, “We are not delaying the amendments, but discussing the specifics, so that when we vote, the amendments are clear and ready.”

It’s also common knowledge that Saleh has placed relatives in key places, such as his son Ahmed, who heads the Republican Guard, an elite unit of the army, and several of his cousins as commanders of U.S. trained counter-terrorism units. So supplanting Saleh poses a challenge whether a term limit is officially scrapped or not. Saleh is thought to be grooming Ahmed for succession, à la Mubarak and al-Assad, and the opposition warned in a joint statement that Saleh aims to "pave the way for hereditary succession."

The GPC has thus taken measures to conceal Saleh’s intentions, allocating 44 seats for women in the 301-member parliament, granting some power to the local councils, and establishing two chambers for parliament. Although these measures are supposed to decentralize power, reform is never taken for granted in Yemen. The opposition claims that Saleh and the GPC have delivered none of the reforms promised in February 2009, when the parliamentary election was delayed to improve voting conditions. Now, as they vainly patch over abolishing term limits, the opposition is caught in another political trap with few options other than boycotting.

And though GPC officials pass the blame onto the opposition, the truth is that they didn’t want them to show up.

This situation is fluid though, and Yemen’s political motions require close monitoring through April’s election. A messy election will render any U.S. counterinsurgency effort that much more infeasible than it currently is.

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