A year has passed since the beginning of the unrest in Yemen, and the elections are set to be held Feb. 21. Up to now Yemen has gone through many hardships. On Nov. 23 President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) deal to hand over power. However, he has not withdrawn from the political arena, despite having passed his responsibilities and duties to his Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansour al-Hadi.
Although some say that Yemen is currently in a slow reconciliatory transitional period, the situation in the country is not that pleasant. The same system, dynamics and regime are maintained. Under these circumstances, the elections will be the first to come after Saleh’s resignation, but the absence of any candidate other than al-Hadi makes the coming election even one step worse than the previous period. Both the political movements in the south and Houthis in the north declare that they will boycott the elections.
Saleh, who is still the leader of the General People’s Congress party, preserves his existence in the political structure. He constantly says he will come back to the political arena, and this will no doubt disturb the Yemeni revolutionaries in the upcoming period. Yet this also poses the question of whether the current situation is sustainable, when we consider the recent Arab social movements’ intolerance of ex-leaders playing a role in the new political systems.
Whether Saleh stays within this system or not, the current situation in the military is also worrying. His close relatives in the army seem as though they are not likely to make people suspicious due to Saleh’s absence. Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is expected to take over his father’s inheritance, is the commander of the Republican Guard. Furthermore, Ahmed Saleh might be a candidate in the future elections and be eager to preserve his father’s tradition. Another example is Saleh’s nephew Yahya Muhammed Saleh, who holds a leading position in the Central Security Forces. Although the GCC deal necessitates the restructuring of the army and removal of Saleh’s relatives from their current positions, it is disputed whether this will actually be done.
Even if the regime totally ends, the existing structure of Yemen may not allow a smooth transitional process. Power conflicts between tribes, the north-south problem, Houthi rebellions, sectarian issues and al-Qaeda’s position in the country add more burdens to the shoulders of Yemeni decision makers and increase tension on the street. Houthis and southern Yemenis have already started to act. Some of them say they want to be influential in the government within the new system, while others have started to raise their voice for separatist desires. Houthis has even started to obtain control of some northern parts of the country. Al-Qaeda has also increased its activities and, although temporarily, gained control of some cities like Radda and Zinjibar.
It is difficult to interpret how Yemen will overcome this process or what kind of a future awaits it, whether it will manage to establish a well-functioning democracy. At this point, one of the main requirements for this country is the inclusion of different segments of society in the process, as well as the creation of a civil society. Yet Saleh’s immunity, which also allows other discredited individuals to take part in the new system, poses an obstacle to the demands of the people for the punishment of the corrupt leader. So, rather than being free and democratic, the upcoming elections will probably be no more than legitimization of the rule of an already-appointed leader. All in all, it looks like Yemen, which could yet topple its leader through a process of reconciliation, needs more time and effort to achieve reconciliation between its system and people.
* Gamze Coşkun is a researcher at the USAK Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies