Monday, 3 January 2011

Ballots, not bullets, for reform in Yemen

The source: Editorial of the National, 03/01/2011

Stories about drone strikes and terrorist raids in Yemen overshadow those about constitutional reform. But the two can't be separated. Yemen's attempts to change how it governs itself are a vital part of its effort to combat separatism and terrorism. Anything the government proposes to fight radicalism rests upon whether or not its citizens see it as legitimate.

Thus, last month's raft of electoral amendments ushered in by the ruling party of the Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh demand close inspection. Do they really constitute reform and will they promote Yemen's development and security?

On first glance the answer is yes. A new ban on the use of state resources, facilities, or power through public positions by political candidates was tucked away in one proposal for constitutional reform. It marks a heady change given Mr Saleh's electioneering of old.

It was not the last worthy measure passed recently by the parliament in Sana'a; the presidential term was reduced from seven to five years and the number of parliamentary seats to be held by women was increased by 44. In addition, more power was given to local officials.

But there was reason for discontent among Mr Saleh's detractors. Along with a slew of progressive measures, Mr Saleh's ruling-party ended term limits for the president. Mr Saleh is in his second term and would have had to step down after its completion. Not anymore. His critics fear that this is an effort by him and his supporters to ensure that he remains president for life.

Given the enormity of the challenges he must contend with - water shortages, radicalism, a dwindling supply of oil - one wonders why Mr Saleh would want to stay in office. Still, Mr Saleh's party does neither the president nor his country any favours by removing term-limits on the highest office in Yemen, if only for the appearance that it creates. "Eliminating the two-term limit is a fall back from the spirit of the republican system," said Aidarous al Naqeeb, an opposition member of parliament.

The intentions of Mr Saleh and his ruling coalition are difficult to judge. As part of a peace agreement with the Houthis brokered by Qatar last February, 500 were released on Saturday. Hassan Baom, a key leader of the southern separatist movement, was also set free. Both are encouraging but Mr Saleh can still do more to bring detractors in from the cold.

They too can offer more constructive proposals for reform. Ballots may bring imperfect results but in bringing about the reforms that Yemen requires, they remain far more constructive than bullets.

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