Yemen�s electoral system
A comparative study

By Nadia Al-Sakkaf
Published August 21st 2006 in Yemen Times
In 1993, the newborn Republic of Yemen held its first multiparty parliamentary elections. A year earlier, in August 1992, a commission called the Yemeni Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendum (SCER) was formed to observe and run the elections. It is considered the Arab world’s first permanent, independent election commission.

Until now, as an elections mechanism – whether local council, parliament or presidential – Yemen has used what’s known as plurality voting or the plurality system, whereby the candidate with the most votes wins. As it is, each electoral system has its advantages and disadvantages, and some would argue that continuing to use the plurality system and the same voter registration mechanism might not be the best option for democracy in Yemen.

One definition of an election is a decision making process whereby individuals vote for preferred political candidates or parties to act as their government representatives. A voting system is a means of choosing between several options based on input from numerous voters. A voting system consists of rules for how voters can express their desires and how these desires are aggregated to yield a final result.

Most voting systems are based on the concept of majority rule or the principle that more than half of voters should see their desired outcome. Given majority rule’s simplicity, those unfamiliar with voting theory often are surprised that such a variety of voting systems exists or that popular voting systems can produce results not supported by more than half the voters.

If every election had only two choices, the winner would be determined using majority rule alone. However, when there are three or more options, there may not be a single option preferred by a majority. Different voting systems may yield very different results, particularly in cases where there’s no clear majority preference.

Various electoral systems

Most electoral systems can be categorized as either majoritarian or proportional. Majoritarianism, often referred to as majority rule, is a political philosophy or agenda asserting that a majority of the population is entitled to a certain degree of primacy in society and therefore, has the right to make decisions affecting society as a whole. As explained above, when three or more options exist, there may not be a single option preferred by a majority.

On the other hand, proportional representation, sometimes referred to as full representation or by the acronym PR, is an electoral system delivering a close match between the percentage of votes groups of candidates obtain in elections and the percentage of seats they receive. In other words, if the category of grouping is religion, for example, all religions would be represented according to their percentage in the population. Therefore, the proportional election system allows all minorities to be represented.

Proportional representation exists in various forms, such as party list proportional representation, wherein the abovementioned groups directly correspond with candidate lists usually given by political parties. Within this form, further distinction can be made, depending on whether or not a voter can influence the election of candidates within a party list (open list and closed list, respectively).

Another type of electoral system under proportional representation is the single transferable vote (STV), which doesn’t depend on the existence of political parties and where the abovementioned “measure of grouping” is left entirely up to voters themselves.

There also are electoral systems, single non-transferable vote (SNTV) and cumulative voting, which, due to their behavior, sometimes are categorized as “semi-proportional” or “pseudo-proportional.”

Faced with the pros and cons of either the majoritarian or proportional electoral system, some nations opt for a mix of the two, known as the mixed election system, usually defined as a combination of the proportional system and the FPTP (winner-takes-all, single seat district) system, thereby attempting to achieve some of both systems’ positive mechanisms.

For example, a state with a bicameral parliament may choose a winner-take-all system for elections to the lower body and a variant of proportional representation for elections to the upper body.

This mixed system usually is needed for large populations to balance election mechanisms focused on local or nationwide elections in terms of the goal of proportional representation. Other examples include nations with very diverse voting populations in terms of geographic, social, cultural or economic realities.

Some of these systems are designed to ensure proportional representation of various groups within the electorate, as are additional member systems, wherein extra seats can be given to parties underrepresented in the legislature.

To a crucial degree, voting procedures used to elect candidates determine whether elections are considered fair and their outcomes legitimate. Procedures mean the rules governing how votes are aggregated in an election and how a winner or winners are determined.

The electoral system in Yemen

The president of the Republic of Yemen is elected by direct popular vote to serve a seven-year term. The president appoints the 111 Shoura Council members and the 301 House of Representatives (Majlis Annowab) members are elected by popular vote to serve six-year terms.

The 1999 presidential election was the first to elect the president by popular vote. Prior to this, the legislative branch selected a five-member presidential council to head the executive branch. Currently, a presidential candidate must receive the nomination by at least 10 percent of the legislature to participate in the general election.

Ali Abdullah Saleh was elected president in the 1999 election, securing 96 percent of the votes and facing only one opponent, Najeeb Qahtan Al-Sha’abi. Total voter turnout was estimated at approximately 66 percent. The Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) wanted to field a presidential candidate, but because the party had boycotted 1997’s legislative elections, it had no parliamentarians and so couldn’t ensure its nominee’s approval.

There are five presidential candidates this year, all males, the most prominent of which is current president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and next is Faisal Bin Shamlan, candidate of the joint opposition parties, known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). Yemen is planning to use the popular vote again to decide winners in local council, parliamentary and presidential elections.

However, the choice of electoral system and the elections’ design can play a decisive role in their outcomes. Reusing the same method means political minorities won’t be represented. Moreover, according to the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES), voter registration is as low as 10 percent in some isolated areas of Yemen.

Marginalized populations such as women, youth and the disabled face challenges deterring them from engaging in the political process. Illiteracy is prevalent and many Yemeni women never have participated in an election nor had the opportunity to vote freely for a candidate of their choice.

IFES has been bringing together a wide range of stakeholders in Yemen’s electoral system, including senior government officials, political party representatives, civil society activists and legal experts, to thoroughly examine and reform Yemen’s current election and political party law.

Stakeholders participate in public policy dialogues wherein they voice concerns about elements of Yemen’s election and political party law, which, if amended, would make for freer, more equitable elections in Yemen.

Via a constructive exchange of opinions, stakeholders reach consensus on needed reform in areas of law identified, refine their understanding of where specific difficulties lie, study other developing democracies’ approaches to resolving such problems and form their positions on the best approach to strengthening Yemen’s electoral law.

Reforming the election law

While Yemen’s 2003 parliamentary elections generally were well-conducted and a significant improvement upon previous elections, they demonstrated that the election law needed amending to improve the electoral process’s impartiality and transparency and deal with several omissions, procedural gaps and technical contradictions. These matters needed addressing before the 2006 presidential and local council elections.

IFES completed an in-depth analysis of Yemen’s election law in Jan. 2004, identifying five priority areas to be addressed before the 2006 elections: the statutory voter registration update schedule, dispute resolution mechanisms, the ballot-counting venue, the process of appointing election subcommittee members and local council election procedures.

Marginalized populations

Approximately 74 percent of Yemen’s population lives in rural areas where many citizens have no access to television or radio news and many are uninformed about their political rights. Additionally, only 30 percent of Yemeni women are literate, compared to 70 percent of men. According to the SCER, a large number of Yemeni citizens eligible to vote aren’t engaged in the political process. IFES’s project targeted these citizens.

In her report on this topic, Kathryn Lynch reported that IFES used 2004 census data and 2002 SCER registration figures to identify five governorates for voter education, including Ibb, Al-Hodeidah, Hajjah, Dhamar and Hadramout. IFES’s field teams included NGO representatives from the Arabic Sisters Forum, Civic Democratic Initiatives Foundation, the Democracy School and Women Journalists Without Chains.

The teams faced several challenges, including a number of citizens who didn’t understand the importance of voter registration and participating in the political process.

One woman asked, “If we can’t select our husband, how can we select the president of the country?”

Concerns ranged from the lengthy distance between villages and registration centers, lack of transportation, the problem of some men prohibiting women from registering and the impact of sheikhs telling citizens whether to register or for whom to vote.

The only place teams were turned away was Kaedana district, where the mayor said the training wasn’t important and ordered local sheikhs to deny access to the villages. The mayor even threatened to have police arrest the teams. The SCER branch office in Kaedana also dismissed the voter education training, saying it was unnecessary.

Discrimination isn’t only social, there is also political marginalization and marginalized organizations wouldn’t be able to represent their people effectively. When elections are based on proportionality rather than plurality, seats are allotted to parties commensurate with the number of votes polled.

Votes go to individual candidates and voters indicate their preferred politician by circling the number assigned to him or her on the ballot. Such an electoral system enables minorities to be represented in Parliament and hence, yields a true representation of the people.

According to research by Ahmed Abdulkareem Saif, doctoral candidate on Yemen’s electoral system in the Department of Politics at England’s University of Exeter, the first-past-the-post (FPP) system in a traditional society like Yemen’s would increase the importance of kinship preferences, which would deepen the sub-national identity at the expense of party electoral programs, thus downgrading the level of Parliament’s professionalism.

This system also disfavors small parties, depriving them of parliamentary representation. Opponents of this election system call for proportional representation (PR), claiming it minimizes personal and financial influence, allows political parties to form coalitions, gives priority to programs and enables parties to choose the most qualified, not the most socially influential, candidates.

However, regarding representation, the existing FPP system has shortcomings. For example, in the 1997 election, at the constituency level, 116 MPs won with less than half (some as few as 23 percent) of all votes in their constituencies. At the national level, as Table 1 shows, when adding up all of the constituencies’ results to get an overall state of Parliament, all MPs got 55 percent of all votes cast and 33.7 percent of all registered eligible voters.

In the 2003 parliamentary elections, the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) won a landslide victory, winning 226 of 301 elected seats.

Saif argues that although the FPP system produces a majority government, in both Yemeni elections, small parties won 12 and five seats in the 1993 and 1997 elections, respectively. However, in a nascent democracy like Yemen’s, this system probably provides a stable majoritarian government allowing for certain cooperation between Parliament and the government. In the short run, this possibly is desirable to allow democratic institutions to further consolidate and institutionalize.

According to the international Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), Yemen’s democratization efforts face several major obstacles, including a culture based chiefly on tribal affiliations, “which put a few rich men in absolute authority over all women and most other men.”

“In other words, this is a culture of power, which accepts pluralism in form and legislation, but rejects it in practice,” stated an IDEA report published in November last year.

The report went on to note that current electoral system loopholes limit the chances of opposition parties garnering the number of parliamentary seats needed to be effective. The report also points out that Yemen’s Constitution stipulates single-member electoral districts, meaning “voters vote for individual candidates rather than party lists, and this, combined with other factors, has helped kill pluralism before it’s had a chance to develop.”

Such imbalance has yielded a Parliament unable to hold government accountable, the IDEA report concludes. “This again strengthens the executive branch at the expense of the legislature.”