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A Fair Election in Yemen

It is an unhappy designation to be among the poorest countries on earth, but for a society as dignified as Yemen’s, the label seems counter intuitive. Unfortunately, abuse of power in Yemen has been creeping for decades and is pervasive. It’s only the indomitable spirit of the Yemeni people that prevents an avalanche of corruption from engulfing the nation entirely.

According to the World Bank, 46 percent of Yemen’s five-year-old children suffer from malnutrition. Half of Yemen’s children never attend primary school. About 90 percent of Yemenis lack access to the necessary water. In rural areas, 70 percent of residents have no access to a doctor. Yemen’s children are nearly invisible in the global media, and they appear internationally only as statistics.

So perhaps photographs would bring some color to the shadows of Yemeni childhood: a photo of a hungry four-year-old drinking dirty water, a photo of a nine-year-old who never attended school burning with fever. Multiplied millions of times, the true scope of the tragedy may emerge.

Yemen is a country with natural resources of gas and oil. It is an astoundingly beautiful country of historical significance, and Yemeni people are often noted for their warmth and friendliness. In Yemen the desire for democracy, justice, and the rule of law runs deep, and a determined cadre of Yemeni intellectuals and reformers understand how to reform Yemen’s economy: decentralization of power, anti-corruption measures, judicial reform, focus on education, and an overhaul of the security forces.

In 2001, an editorial in the Yemen Times noted, “the pain that has been inflicted on the public after years of neglect and disrespect to the laws of the country. Thousands of laws and regulations are destined to stay on paper without implementation on the ground for tens of years … Mighty, rich, and influential people in the country have been exempted from almost all rules currently applied to the poor and weak.”

Now, as then, population statistics on one hand are related to economic statistics on the other. Over 2.5 billion Yemeni rials were “lost” from the state treasury due to corruption, and the offending ministers may be reassigned or retire. It has been suggested that 20 percent to 30 percent of publicly funded diesel subsidies wind up in private pockets due to smuggling. An I.M.F. report notes defense spending tripled from 1998 to 2003, from $52,247 to $148,139 in millions of rials, and weapons smuggling is a concern of the United Nations.

Now, as then, the culture of corruption is countered by a culture of courage. A justice minister implementing judicial reforms faced down a barrage of contacts from over 450 individuals, including high-ranking officials, attempting to influence his decisions. No group epitomizes the commitment to democratic institutions more than Yemen’s journalists, many of whom operate in an atmosphere of risk, threats, harassment, arrests, defamation, clone newspapers, and assaults in the exercise of their profession.

But now, unlike then, an opportunity exists for Yemenis to determine their political destiny. With President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s decision to step down from office after 27 years, the Yemeni presidential election of 2006 holds hope for a peaceful transition of power. President Saleh described the need for “young blood” to lead the country into a new era, and a new political configuration may begin to disentangle ensconced vested interests and revive a moribund bureaucracy. The greater hope is that through a self-determinative government, the Yemeni people themselves will lead the country into a new era in which the state nurtures its most valuable resource, the youth.

Considering the government’s control of the broadcast media, interference in the last parliamentary election, and the dominance of the ruling party, it will be an uphill battle for any candidate looking to disrupt relations of power that have evolved over decades. The opportunity for a “free and fair” presidential election in Yemen may be remote but international attention and support will make it less so. Democracy is the expressed preference among Yemenis. Clearly, its implementation in practice is in the strategic interest of the international community.

It is possible that the Yemeni people, among the poorest in the region economically, will become among the richest in political rights and civil liberties. Economic development would likely follow a decentralization of power and the reallocation of resources as the productivity of a talented nation is unleashed. Beginning with the historic achievement of a fairly contested election, beautiful Yemen can emerge from the isolation of authoritarianism and the shadows of poverty, vibrant and resplendent among nations.

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