Yemen will hold elections Sept. 20 to elect a president and two levels of local government. President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his ruling General People's Congress will likely win — albeit with a thinner majority than before. Considered Yemen's first truly competitive vote, the elections not only have the potential to weaken the ruling party's hold on power but also to bring about a realignment of the main opposition Islamist Islah party.
Yemeni security forces arrested an alleged senior al Qaeda operative who was a bodyguard for Yemeni Oil Minister Faisal bin Shamlan, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said Sept. 19. Shamlan is Saleh's main challenger in the Middle Eastern nation's Sept. 20 vote. Holding a picture of the suspect, Saleh called the man a "major terrorist" who was planning operations against U.S. installations and the Movenpick Hotel Sanaa. A spokesman for the opposition umbrella group the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), however, said the man had worked as a bodyguard for just seven days, and was fired in late August because of suspicions he had ties with government's security and intelligence apparatus. That the president himself accused his opponent of ties to jihadists indicates his concern at the electoral challenge Saleh and the ruling General People's Congress (GPC) face in what appears to be Yemen's first truly competitive election. Saleh will likely defeat Shamlan — though with a thinner majority than he enjoyed in the previous election. Saleh's opponent is the candidate of the JMP, which includes the Islamist Yemeni Congregation for Reform, better known as Islah; the Yemeni Socialist Party; Nasserites; Baathists; and other smaller secular and Islamist forces. While the GPC maintains more than a two-thirds majority in Parliament, it will likely lose some ground in the district and governorate councils, given the competitive nature of the races and public dissatisfaction with the establishment. Though Saleh, who has ruled the country for the last 28 years, and the ruling party face a significant challenge, Islah has problems of its own. Even though the opposition has joined up to form the JMP, Islah appears to be in a state of flux. These elections will likely lead to Islah's transformation, and possible weakening. Islah thus far has consisted of three components. The first is the political faction, Yemen's Muslim Brotherhood, led by Mohammed Qahtan. The second is the tribal confederacy led by top tribal chief Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar. And the third is the mainstream Salafists in Yemen, led by the country's most prominent Sunni religious scholar, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani. Islah has had a working relationship with the GPC, but relations have become more tense recently with al-Ahmar having a major falling-out with Saleh. The Muslim Brotherhood faction is also backing Shamlan. Al-Zindani, however, has issued a fatwa calling on people to vote for Saleh in the elections. Meanwhile, senior Islah leader Mohammed al-Yadoumi, who used to be the country's intelligence chief and is a major figure within the Salafist faction of Islah, also backs the president. Given the tensions between its pro- and anti-Saleh factions, the elections are likely to cause Islah to undergo major changes. Saleh's government has worked closely with the United States in the U.S.-jihadist war. Yemen has seen Islamist militant action in the past and many Yemenis have risen to the top ranks of al Qaeda; but barring the Sept. 15 failed attack on oil and gas facilities in the country, Sanaa has managed to contain the jihadists since 9/11 because of its ties with the Salafists through al-Zindani. Moreover, Salafists gained prominence in Yemeni intelligence during the civil war against the communists in 1994. Through these Salafists allied with the state, the Yemeni government was able to move against the more extreme Salafists and jihadists. As for the election itself, even Islah admits that unlike before, the races will be tough. And GPC spokesman Mohammad Abulahoum said Sept. 17 that "The 2003 [parliamentary] elections were a smooth ride for us, not really competitive. We got over 70 percent then. These are our first real multiparty elections. We take them seriously. The GPC has to work hard." While the election will be multiparty and competitive, whether vote-rigging or fraud will mar it remains to be seen. Opposition groups fear some degree of irregularities, meaning disputes over the results could arise. And with the opposition more organized and emboldened than before, this could create instability. Ultimately, the elections will probably weaken Saleh and his GPC's hold, but their majority in the legislature should keep them comfortable for quite some time.