Is a New Power-Sharing Deal the Best Governing Arrangement for Yemen?
Over the past two decades Yemen’s political leadership has often addressed political deadlocks or crises by signing informal power-sharing arrangements among various tribal, regional and political groups in the absence of institutions or a legal framework mandating or regulating these agreements. Many of the agreements were either aborted immediately upon adoption, never implemented, or abandoned within a few years. In a society that is severely divided along tribal, regional and religious lines and in which the majority of citizens are very involved in politics, there is a genuine risk that such informal and extra-legal power-sharing deals may yield fragile and undemocratic politics with uncertain prospects.
The same risk also exists for the ongoing political transition outlined by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Agreement of 2011. Under the GCC Agreement, Yemen’s political parties agreed to share power in several institutions until the next elections, with the understanding that such power sharing would only occur for a limited period. Regrettably they failed to comprehend not only the complexity of Yemen’s internal turmoil, but also the durability of the GCC implementation mechanism in the face of the challenging conditions under which it is expected to be adopted. The stalemate in implementing the GCC Agreement, the on-going political impasse and inability to meet transitional milestones within the agreed-upon timeframe have gradually degraded the power-sharing deal over time. Critically, these factors have also opened the door for groups that were not part of the GCC deal – such as the political parties, southern separatists, the Houthis and Al Qaeda – to exploit the protracted transition for their own benefit on an alternative course to that outlined in the GCC agreement.
Yemen is at a crossroads – the presidential term of office specified in the GCC agreement has expired and the current Parliament has been in office since 2003. The unity government has extended its tenure, arguing that necessary negotiations and safeguards could not be in place on time; on the other hand, there is a strong push from Houthi leaders to renegotiate the current power-sharing arrangements. However, many others are reluctant to surrender power and would likely be discontent with any new arrangements. Unfortunately, Yemen is facing too many urgent crises to afford the time for prolonged negotiations on a new power-sharing deal that most likely will not resolve the major issues at hand. Expectations remain high among Yemeni citizens that the unity government will deliver on public demands for improved government services, an end to corruption, and an inclusive, transparent and participatory transition process.
The ongoing negotiations with Houthi leaders over a new power-sharing deal are diverting attention from finalizing the constitution drafting process, having a formal public consultation on the draft constitution, and moving forward on the subsequent changes to legal and government structures that will be required under a new constitution and a possible federal system.
As delays in the constitution drafting process continue, elections will be pushed back and the delays will leave a very tight timeline for holding the constitutional referendum and writing the new election provisions into law. In addition, it is unlikely there will be sufficient time to amend laws and regulations that will be in violation of the provisions and rights guaranteed in the newly-adopted constitution. Legal and political reforms are important for creating a level playing field; however, a lack of serious electoral reforms before the next elections would likely have a greater impact on the polls. Hence, reforming the political parties law, media law and campaign finance regulations ahead of the next elections is critical as power-sharing deals do not level the electoral playing field.
More importantly, the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which are considered the guiding principles for the drafting of the country’s new constitution and governing structure, are general in terms. Therefore, it unlikely that any draft constitution will outline a power-sharing structure that is acceptable to all stakeholders, and political actors will continue to seek to reverse conditions they find to be unfavorable. The National Authority for Monitoring of NDC Outputs – tasked with ensuring NDC outcomes are reflected in the draft constitution, and facilitating the public consultation process on the draft constitution – will face a daunting task. Codifying the general ideas of the NDC outcomes into the constitution and subsequent laws requires significant buy-in and decisions from various stakeholders, therefore, it seems unlikely that Yemen will have a constitution ready to be put forward for a referendum by the end of March 2015.
Moreover, the success of Yemen’s transition will be dependent upon the success of subsequent electoral processes including the completion of the nationwide Biometric Voter Register (BVR). At this time, no formal decision has been made regarding a start date for the nationwide BVR, and the originally envisioned four-phase rollout plan may not be feasible due to security concerns. Yemen’s current voter register was a major source of electoral manipulations in past elections and continues to be widely contested by most political parties. For that, the GCC Agreement explicitly identified the need to fix it as a critical component of the transition. Therefore, it is critical that the Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendum (SCER) receives the necessary support from the government and political parties to launch this major event, which will require a minimum of eight months to complete. If the start of the BVR process continues to be pushed back, the SCER will have no other option than using the existing register for the referendum, despite the significant obvious political risks of doing so.
It is also important to note that the current power-sharing deal has weakened the political parties’ internal organizational structure and grassroots external relationships. Diversion of seasoned staff, resources and attention to fill government positions nationwide raises questions about their priorities and long term strategy to adjust to the newly-proposed federal and electoral systems. The adoption of a proposed closed list proportional representation electoral system with a 30 percent women’s quota will necessitate a number of changes in the internal procedures of political parties. Also, the proposed electoral system makes it easier for parties to win parliamentary seats and thus may lead to the formation of new parties and the fragmentation of old parties. Given the short time the political parties are likely to face between the release of a new electoral framework and Election Day, it is critical for the leadership of the political parties to devote the resources and energy to be prepared to contest the future parliamentary and federal elections.
Finally yet importantly, the unity government continues to be submerged in closed-door negotiations with little sharing of information with the general public. To date no efforts or resources have been exerted toward a nationwide public information campaign to share with the citizens the transitional road map, the outcomes of the NDC and the proposed governing system.
Yemen’s experience suggests that competitive elections may be the best route to end the existing deadlocks. Elections may create increased conflict and instability in the short run, as new parties chip away at the entrenched tribal leaders. However, competition what is what drives elites toward designing checks on power and forces leaders to live up to their responsibilities.