The Future of Political Parties in Yemen


Mon, 29-11-2021 12:06 AM, Aden Time

Farida Ahmed (South24) 

The political Yemeni parties have passed through hard historical stages between ups and downs, as some of them climbed to the forefront,  while others lost their luster in the midst of events. However, the latest Yemen crisis, which began in 2014 reveals the fragility of the traditional parties, and shows their deep paralysis and the failure to tame the political scene or do their expected role at least. 

By making a quick historical glimpse at the partisan scene and the core of the union work in Yemen, it can be said that its first stage began in the fourth decade of the last century till late 1950s. Some elite parties emerged at that time in North including the Liberal Party (Al-Ahrar), established in Aden in 1944, the Union Party (Al-Ittihad) in 1952. South Yemen witnessed the establishment of  the  “People's Union”, “Southern Sons League”,  “the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party” and  the “Arab Nationalists Movement”1. The Second stage began between the 6th and the 8th decades of the 20th Century which witnessed the emergence of national parties that carried organizational ideology which impacted large sections in North and South. The whole of those political organizations emerged in Aden, while their branches in North were working in secret due to a law, issued in 1970, that prohibited the establishment of political parties. In the late 1980s, the ideological features dominated the parties. The one party rule was enhanced, represented by (General People's Congress) while the “Yemeni Socialist Party” was dominant in South Yemen. 

After the Unity in 1990, parties and political organizations were legalized in 19912,  in which there was a big rush towards establishing new entities because of the legal flexibility at that time which accepted all requests in that regard. The number of the officially recognized parties 2 years after the Unity reached 46, each of which had its own formal newspaper. The partisan map consisted of two main sections, the first of which was the two ruling parties including the General People's Congress with his Secretary-General, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the “Yemeni Socialist Party '' with his Secretary-General Ali Salem Al-Bidh. The second section consisted of all popular and islamist parties, top of which are the “Nasserist”, “Ba'ath” and  “Yemeni Congregation for Reform” (Islah)3.

As for the the Islah Party, which is ideologically affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), it should be said that it was established under the request of the then President Ali Abdullah Saleh, to act as an islamic auxiliary to the the Congress Party so as to  confront the Socialist Party, according to the Memoir of its first leader “Abdullah Hussein Al-Ahmar”, and to adopt opposing views towards some points which it unwillingly  agreed  with the “Socialist Party”. The Islah worked to obstruct the implementation of them in agreement with the Congress Party. It is known that the Islah consists of leaders who belong to the MB’s extremist wing. One of its founders is Abdul Majeed Al-Zindani who was described by the US as being “the Godfather of the former Al-Qaeda Leader, Osama bin Laden”4

A study, prepared by Amr Hamzawy, concluded that “In spite of the expansion of the Islah Base in the central and southern areas after 1994, the decision making and the top executives positions remained into the hands of the Zaidi elites in the Plateau”5

The role of political parties in the crises

The decline in the role of the traditional political parties in Yemen and their weak performance have a negative impact on the course of the political events in Yemen, and have perpetuated conflicts and the divisions among the political and partisan forces, which caused  a failure that led the country towards accumulated crises,when those supposedly patriotic forces transformed to crises partners and one of their basic dilemmas. 

In 1994, when the Northern forces invaded “South Yemen” which is a partner in the 1990 Unity with North Yemen, the political parties remained silent and didn’t adopt clear positions against this, under the pretext that they are opposition parties which don’t want to support the authority’s incursion nor backing the Socialist Party, or declaring an attitude towards the separation demands. Even some of those parties participated in invading South in 1994 such as “Islah” as Abdul Wahab Al-Dailami, one of its leaders and a founder of the MB’s political Yemeni wing, issued a “fatwa” that  allowed killing the southerners and declared members of the Socialist Party to be infidels and accusing them of apostasy6

One of the pre-1994 War problems was the political crisis which broke out between Ali Salem Al-Bidh and Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, when signing the Document of Pledge and Accord on Jan 18th 1994 in Amman, all political parties and the community forefront elites participated, about 300 Yemeni figures, most of them lacking influence and had no direct relationship with the political crisis. This leads to a conclusion that shifting the conflict from being a provincial one between North and South into a political struggle between components required inserting irrelevant parties with no influential presence in the political scene. This led to a subsequent crystallization of the political conflict to a regional military one (between North and South). Accordingly, the general political scene trembled and lost its balance after the war, especially after the victory of the Congress Party and its allies,  particularly, Islah. Amendments in the constitution and the Party Law were made, as well raising doubts towards the parties’ legal base. Later, the number of parties was reduced to 22.

In 2007, after the establishment of the Southern "Hirak", the parties didn't adopt a clear attitude towards the popular peaceful movement that emerged in South Yemen. Prior to its emergence,  the Hirak's leaders tried to take the Yemeni Socialist Party as its political bearer, as being one of the two Unity parties, but the the latter's leaders, especially those who belong to North Yemen frustrated the Southern wing that demanded correcting the path of the Unity, pushing them to take their own track away from the political parties and their figures.

In 2011,  after the outbreak of the so-called “Yemeni Revolution of Change”, the political parties, represented by the “Joint Meeting”,  were summoned to sign on the Gulf Initiative, although the main problem was between the youth revolution “the street”, and Ali Abdullah Saleh. This gradually exacerbated the crisis, allowing the Houthis to exploit the chaos of the scene, and turn against the authority of the interim President, to ignite the fuse of an ongoing civil war since 2014, that completed its seventh year. The solution approaches are still going on among the crisis culprits and the weak political parties without recognizing its dimensions, amid constant alienation of the affected parties or the direct stakeholders. 

There is no exaggeration in saying that if the political parties participated in any understandings or consultations related to the latest crisis in Yemen including peace negotiation tours in Geneva, Kuwait and Stockholm as well as the Riyadh Agreement, they would not have affected the course of events positively, or finding solutions to get out the crisis. They have even contributed to aggravating the situation and wasting big opportunities by their jostling for presence as political parties  with little influence.  

The crisis of the political parties today

Looking at the current status of the traditional political parties, it is noticeable that it faces a deep crisis, as they still remain away from the urgent human right and political issues which emerge in the several local demographics. They are even involved in the clashes against the demands of  those provincial movements fearing that they may transform into political entities that could replace the parties and share their quotas. In spite of the strong resistance against the popular movements by the parties, it is noticeable that the influential  role of the provincial components has increased while the influence of the parties on ground has declined in spite of their monopoly of the conflic’s political representation. The crises of the most 3 important parties in Yemen can be addressed as follow: 

General People's Congress
If we focus on the General People's Congress, which ruled for 4 decades, we will see that it became the most scattered and stagnated party. What made it worse for the party’s members is the declaration by its former Leader “Ali Abdullah Saleh” about his alliance with the Houthis to overthrow Hadi. This put the party in front of difficult options to subsequently disintegrate into three entities.  The first of which was forced to stay in Sanaa under the Supreme Political Council which was established by the Congress Party and the Houthis before Saleh’s death late 2017. The second one is based in Riyadh including Rashad Al-Alimi and Ahmed Obaid bin Daghr. The third entity resides in Abu Dhabi, led by Ahmed Ali, the son of the former Yemeni President  Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Observers said that Tariq Saleh’s announcement about the establishment of “Political Bureau” for his National Resistance Forces was attributed to the fragmentation of the “Congress Party”, although it would be better if he could secure the representation of the General People's Congress, as a political party and a national resistance compared with a fledgling political bureau which derives its popular representation from one part of the party’s bases. However, Tariq does not have any official or organizational title in the party, amid the lack of partisan bodies to elect him as a representative of the “Congress Party”. This constitutes a problem regarding the inability to employ the party as a political bearer of the national resistance, and a leading power in North Yemen.  Even across the south, the party members were distributed between the STC and independents or work for other parties. This means that they are still existent as individuals but the party itself lost its presence and influence in South.

The Yemeni Socialist Party
A comparison between the historical heritage of the Yemeni Socialist Party, the biggest of its kind in Yemen, the extent of its role in previous historical stages and its current positions will be somewhat shocking. Some observers believe that one of the reasons behind the party’s retreat is moving its headquarters from South to North, which affected its organizational structure, and weakened its performance, as it has largely become a Northern party since 2015,  rattled by internal disputes and divisions.

Moreover, its biggest problem is the monopoly of its decision making by the party’s Secretary General and the marginalization of the  partisan bodies, as well as the lack of contact among its members. This created a chasm and vacuum that opened the door to other parties for political polarization and an attempt to attract some of its members to achieve the interests of the most influential parties.

Additionally, the Yemeni Socialist Party lost a large number of its leaders in a series of assassinations before the civil war in 1994, while others went into exile after the war. The last  15  years were not less stressful for the party, as it witnessed periodic splits in its ranks, and a number of its members applied for political asylum7.

Noteworthy, the Socialist Party has almost stopped its organizational activity to attract new members since the post-1994 war, for more than 26 years, including youth today who either belong to socialist houses or belong to the party without official memberships. For example, the number of registered members in  the party’s Fifth Conference held in 2005 was just 10000. Undoubtedly, 16 years after, the number has decreased due to the membership absence. This lead to an important question about how the Socialist Party has the right or the qualification to resolve political and fatal decisions while their total members don’t exceed 10000, if not much lower, in a country which has a population of over 30 million people?This also applies to the less influential parties, as the Yemeni Socialist is the third biggest political party in Yemen in spite of its modest popular presence.

Yemeni Congregation for Reform
It can be said that the Islah is the most coherent party at the organizational level. This trait is common among the religious or the ethnic groups. The Islah, which represents the political arm of the MB, regardless to its positive traits at the level of influence, popular attraction and its members' census, Islah adopts policies of creating conflicts against everyone who differs with it, which sometimes led to killing and committing crimes against its rivals, like what happened in the 1994 War, or against many figures who were being politically accused of blasphemy, treason to pave the way  for assassinating them, such as the Socialist leader, Jarallah Omar, who was assassinated in Sana’a in 2002 during his participation in the Third General Conference of the Islah Party which is also accused of being the assasination of  Brigadier General Adnan Al Hammadi in Taiz in 2019. 

Furthermore, the Islah, in spite of its control on the decision making in the internationally-recognized Hadi government and the National Army, it faces numerous accusations of failing to manage the Yemeni crisis file at the political and military level, as well as a crisis of  losing the trust  of the provincial parties participating in the Saudi-Arab Coalition, following successive withdrawals from the fronts and handing them over to the Houthis without a fight, which was confirmed by military sources in footages from Shabwa and Marib.

It is apparently clear that Riyadh still cautiously deals with the Islah to keep a “weak authority” is safer for the KSA than a one influenced by a party which is a main Muslim Brotherhood’s pillar in Yemen. A statement, issued by the  Saudi Council of Senior Scholars last year considered the MB a “terrorist” group which does not represent the Islam by pursuing  partisan goals to stir up sedition, violence and terrorism8. The Islah is also under the influence of the MB International Organization which imposes agendas that clash,  on many points,  with the goals of the Arab Coalition and the local forces fighting the Houthis.

In this regard, observers noticed that Islah employed political parties, including the less influential parties in the political scene, to serve the interests of the group’s agenda in Yemen. An alliance, consisting of 16 political parties, was announced in the city of Seiyun in April 2019 under the allegation that it is part of efforts to restore the authority from the Houthis9. Mohammad al-Yadoumi, Head of the Supreme Council of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform announced 6 goals of the this Yemeni Alliance10. However, several political forces expressed doubts towards it, saying that it includes fake parties that aim to achieve political purposes in favor of certain parties and implement foreign agendas.

It can be said that the fragile presence of the traditional political parties in the latest Yemeni crisis scene allowed the expansion of Islah's activities at the political and military levels in more than one location. The Latter’s influence on some political figures including the leaders of some parties made them adherent to Islah and ally with it, believing that that it is the only way through which their interests can be achieved. This is one of the troubles that obstructed political action and prolonged the crisis.

Is provincial representation the solution?

The decline of Yemeni Street’s trust towards the traditional political parties  has enabled the emergent provincial forces and  political entities  to lead the scene in the latest years and gain the grassroot trust. The STC is in the forefront of those entities, as many members of those parties including General People's Congress, the Socialist Party along with the Southern “Hirak”  pledged allegiance to it. 

Along with its widespread popularity base in South Yemen, the STC is an entity which was established aloof from representing Left or Nationalism or Political Islam, but to be a representative of the political Southern Issue. It was able to assert its presence as a big political and military power which has organized itself on that basis internally and externally. 

On the other hand, The emergence of these provincial formations applies to  Marib which Islah seeks to grab its representation, overriding its active local tribes which have been marginalized for years. The same applies to Tuhama and Taiz or even Saada in which the Houthis supported the slogans of its leaders in order to control the Yemeni capital and most of the Northern areas.

Logically, the local communities and their emergent entities which represent their people should be given the priority to sit in the negotiation table to determine the needs and demands of their society, and not the political parties that proved fragile. The basic problem emanating from the latest war in Yemen is related to demography, whether between South and North for legal and political considerations caused by the failure of the Unity project, or in North Yemen itself for considerations related to the authoritarian rule over past periods, and the absence of societal justice. This means that the political settlement solutions are supposed to focus on sharing authority and wealth among the regions, and not be based on partisan distribution. 

Accordingly, the involvement of all relevant local communities with all their representatives, whether in South or North is very important in establishing peace, as ignoring those parties produces endless conflicts, and the modern political history in Yemen is an eyewitness on that. 

It is likely that this will lead to a more decline of the traditional parties’ role, to be replaced by the emergent  provincial  political entities. 

Resident Fellow with South24 Center, researcher and journalist in political affairs.
Photo: Local media

Yemen PoliticsPolitical PartiesSocialismAl-MotamarSTCIslahHouthis