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A simple reform of parliament could help to save Yemen   

The National - 31 January, 2012
Author: Faisal al Yafai

Will he return? After months of prevarication, Yemen's long-time ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh finally bowed to protests that have rocked his country since last year and left via Oman, ostensibly for medical treatment in the United States.

History teaches us that the return of Mr Saleh - a great survivor of Arab politics - can never be ruled out. Indeed, he himself has left the door open, saying he plans to return, although it has been reported that he might settle in Oman and his son Ahmed is said to have been seen in the Gulf state preparing for his arrival. For his many enemies in Yemen, even exile in Oman would be too close.

Even if Mr Saleh has left for good, the system he built over the years of his rule remains in place. His relatives and the allies he cultivated over three decades still dominate Yemen, especially in the army and the air force. In recent days, a mutiny in the elite Republican Guard indicated cracks in the armed forces, but by yesterday the revolt had apparently been suppressed. In any event, the armed forces dissolving in internecine violence is hardly the desired path to change.

Yemen's neighbours - particularly Saudi Arabia - and the international community prefer stability to reform. The youth movement, which has achieved such great things over the past year at the cost of so much blood, remains committed to reform.

But how to proceed? First, weaken the centre.

This may sound counter-intuitive in a country where the writ of the state runs weak in significant areas. Outside of the main cities, especially in the wide spaces of the east and in the restive Saada province in the north, the ability of the state to enforce its will is weak.

This is the contradiction at the heart of Yemeni politics. The troubles that plague Yemen are structural, yet the state cannot solve them. Economic activity is slow, with no clear plan for how to provide jobs for the nearly three-quarters of Yemen's population that is under 30. Most worryingly, water is running out, along with oil.

Such structural problems would be best resolved by a strong central state, able to set in motion investment plans and organise irrigation and water-conservation programmes. Yet for most of the last three decades, the country's troubles have stemmed from unaccountable power at the centre.

Today, few trust the state to deliver impartial services. Mr Saleh's rule was based on playing sections of society off against each other, rewarding some and keeping others in tension. The result has been nepotistic politics, with Mr Saleh as the father figure. It is hard to see how a new president, with an old system, could enact genuine reform.

Hence, the focus of reform should be the country's parliament, weakening the ability of the president to do as he pleases. For a start, parliamentary elections are long overdue - the current parliament has been sitting since 2003. Elections scheduled for 2009 were postponed for two years and then, following the unrest last year, postponed again. There has been no meaningful change of parliamentarians for most of the past decade.

The most pressing reform of parliament would be to move from a first-past-the-post system to proportional representation. The General People's Congress, the party of Mr Saleh, has long blocked this change, which allows it to dominate the parliament, turning it into a rubber-stamp for the presidency. But this change, which the opposition Joint Meeting Parties has endorsed, would not only set Yemen back on a path of reform, it would also allow for more democracy.

With a proportional representation system, it is likely that many smaller parties would find voices within the system. In particular, the southern secessionist movement and the youth movement would find themselves with voices within the political tent, potentially acting as a pressure valve for discontent now being expressed in the street.

For the southern movement, this would also be a chance to see if some of the legitimate grievances can be solved through political means - southerners are especially keen on regaining some equitable distribution of oil revenues (the vast majority of which derive from the south), and the removal of northerners from the governorships of southern provinces. Outright secession is not the answer to these, as much as it has been suggested by southern leaders, not least because as yet there is no organised political leadership in the southern movement. Proper representation in parliament would allow the south time and space to organise and work within the system.

The counter-argument is that, with so many problems, Yemen needs strong leadership. A fragmented parliament with parliamentarians pursuing different interests might undermine national unity. Yet the contrary is true.

The systemic problems of Yemen have been apparent for at least two decades, and the supposed unity and strong leadership of the GPC and Mr Saleh exacerbated rather than ameliorated them. But secondly, offering a voice to as many of Yemen's political groups as possible would make it less likely that secession in the south or paralysis on the streets will continue. By weakening the centre, Yemen may yet be able to strengthen the whole.


On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai
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