Abdalhadi Alijla is a Swedish-Palestinian academic and the Regional Manager for ‘Varieties of Democracy Institute’ for the Gulf countries at Gothenburg University, Sweden. He is the executive director for the Institute for Middle East Studies, Canada (IMESC).
As the Arabian’s coalition strikes against Yemen stop, a new era starts with the question “What next?” Yemen’s crisis is not a new one. It is not even a crisis of the post-2011 demonstrations against former President Ali Abdulla Saleh. Rather it dates back to the 1960s. On many occasions, violence has been part of the atmosphere, yet it was managed through the common ground political equation and the strong informal institutions of Yemen (Tribal system). In most of the previous Yemeni crises and the current crisis, the causes have their roots in the political system, specifically the Head of the State.
In the 1960s, the Republic of Yemen in San’a fought against royal forces for about seven years. It ended with a so-called national reconciliation. After southern Yemen’s independence from Yemen in 1967, two wars between the south and the north erupted in 1972 and 1979 respectively. In 1982, the People’s Conference was established, setting its agenda as the unity of the two Yemens. As a result, a new commission and supreme council were established by the conference. A ministerial joint committee worked together until unity was achieved in 1990. They set a time period of two and a half years as a transition phase to merge institutions. The unification agreement included the decentralization of institutions, neutralization of the military, a modern electoral system, and new local governance arrangements. The two leaderships signed the agreement in Amman in February 1994. In the summer of 1994, a new war erupted between the military of the two countries and ended with a defeat for southern Yemen and its socialist party.
The historical legacy of fragmentation in each part of Yemen and the proliferation of militias based on ethnicity and tribalisms suggest that what is currently happening in the country may bring about something worse than what we could have expected.
The latest data from ‘Varieties of Democracy Institute’ shows that there is a huge crisis of the executive in Yemen. V-Dem has collected a unique database of data on democracy from 1900 until today. The aim of the project is to provide better and clearer measures of democratic development for practitioners, academics and policy-makers. Using V-Dem data, we can measure the role of the executive in undermining democracy and peace in countries such as Yemen.
In the following graphs (Graphs Nos. 1 and 2), V-Dem data show how Head of States in both South Yemen and Yemen respected the constitution from the 1950s until 2012. Surprisingly, the Head of the State (Ali Abdullah Saleh) had violated most provisions of the constitution without any legal consequences after the unification of South Yemen and Yemen. Comparing that to the pre-unification agreement in 1990, Southern Yemen had a higher ability to take legal measurements whenever the executive violated the constitution. The second graph shows the Head of the State’ s ability to propose legislation. According to V-Dem data, the Yemeni president could propose legislation in all policy areas or share this power with the legislature.
Within a society such as the Yemeni society where informal institutions, tribalism, nepotism and patrimonialism prevail over good governance and respect for laws and the constitution, the Yemeni president undermined democratic values and liquidated the constitution by appointing relatives to the military and high official posts. Not only that, but he founded and organized paramilitary troops that are loyal to him, violating the constitution signed in 1990 that states that only minister of defense manages and controls the military of the state.
More surprisingly, after the unification of the south Yemen and Yemen, the level of judicial constraints on the executives (Head of the State, Head of Government and Ministers) decreased significantly in south Yemen and by a few degrees in Yemen (Graph 3 below). This can be explained by the collapse of the unification agreement. The war in 1994 between south Yemen and Yemen (after the unification) ended with the defeat of the socialist party. After the war, the South Yemen governmental and formal institutions collapsed, and the People’s Conference took over south Yemen. After that, the unification agreement between South Yemen and Yemen ended by amending the constitutions along the lines of a presidential system (not a presidential council as the agreement stated). The new constitution gave the president complete authority over all policy areas, including judiciary and legislative ones. With corruption widespread, Yemen’s president appointed his relatives and loyalists.
The current Yemeni crisis is not about the Houthi or Iran’s influence in the area. Taking a look at the egalitarian index of democracy (below) for both south Yemen and Yemen, we see a huge difference between the two. The dissatisfaction among southern Yemeni increases as they were excluded from power. “The egalitarian principle of democracy addresses the distribution of political power across social groups, i.e. groups defined by religion, and ethnicity. This perspective on democracy emphasizes that a formal guarantee of political rights and civil liberties are not always sufficient for political equality. Ideally, all social groups should have approximately equal participation, representation, agenda-setting power, and protection under the law, and influence over policymaking and policy implementation. If such equality does not exist, the state ought to seek to redistribute socio-economic resources, education, and health so as to enhance political equality”. As graph No. 4 shows South Yemen had a higher egalitarian index than Yemen. However, after the unification, both countries had a significantly lower egalitarian index which reveals that some part of the population was excluded from some of their political or social rights. With increasing voices by Southern Yemeni for separation, it seems that the unification has failed, not because the population failed, but because the political system failed (1).
It seems that the present crisis is not a political one linked to the Houthi and political reform, rather a political, economic and societal dilemma between the Southern Yemeni and Northern Yemeni. The complexities of presidentialism in Yemen accompanied by corruption, nepotism and exclusion of the southern Yemeni led to ongoing deadlock. What is needed is a new political system, preferably power-sharing with southern Yemeni to avoid separatists increasing influence among Yemeni, which may not be a good omen for the future of Yemen.