Catherine Shakdam
Last updated: 4 February, 2012

Commentary: Transition to a parliamentary system in a bid to save Yemen

Several sources within the newly appointed coalition government have revealed that many officials, both foreign and national were contemplating moving Yemen away from its current presidential system into a parliamentary one.

The idea would be to prevent a repeat of the presidential dictatorship which President Ali Abdullah Saleh was able to run for 3 decades as he single-handedly controlled the Executive, the Legislative and to an extent the Judiciary.

Yemen is a presidential republic with a bicameral legislature. Under the Constitution, the president is elected by popular vote and is de facto the Head of State, leaving his Prime Minister to head the Cabinet. The President will then share his power with the parliament and the Shurah Council which 111 members are directly chosen by him.

Although in essence the parliament should counteract the President’s powers by maintaining a certain balance and ensuring that people are indeed represented, Yemen’s First-Past-The-Post-System, long prevented a proportional representation of political factions.

Under First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting takes place in single-member constituencies. Voters put a cross in a box next to their favored candidate and the candidate with the most votes in the constituency wins. All other votes count for nothing.

This system played to the ruling party’s advantage, leaving President Saleh in direct control of the Executive and the Legislative, with no governmental body to oppose his will.

Parliamentary System

If Yemen was to transition to a parliamentary system it would mean that a shift of power would occur in favor of the elected Parliament, leaving the President to directly answer to the Legislative. Under this format, it is the Prime Minister who will hold the strings of power, relegating the President to a more representative role since he would only be signing up on the government policies rather than directing them.

The way in which members of the Parliament are elected would also change from FPTP to proportional representation, allowing political pluralism to flourish and a healthy political dialogue to take place as opposed to the single-party ideology under which Yemen sat for the past 3 decades.

Although the popular uprising which started more than a year ago only meant at the time to oust its long standing President, the conversation is now moving away from a simple change of leadership into a profound need for political reforms.

Plagued by overlapping conflicts, it is Yemen’s unity as a nation which stands now in the balance. In between the rise of sectarianism in the country’s northern provinces and the southern secessionist movement, Yemen needs to create a space where all political factions are proportionally represented.

Many political leaders, amongst whom Sheikh Abu Lohoom, one of Yemen’s most powerful tribal leaders and a prominent reformist, have already expressed this opinion, stressing that Yemen needed to break away radically from its presidential system if it was to answer its people need for a fairer and more democratic state.

Bid to Preserve National Unity

Since President Saleh manned the south into uniting with the north, southerners have claimed that the central government was conducting a “double-standard” policy, reserving the blunt of its finances to expanding and developing the northern territories to the detriment of the south which slowly sank further into poverty. Politicians also argued that Saleh was keeping them away from governmental positions and virtually acting as a colonial force.

And if so far Saleh used his armed forces to quell the brewing rebellion, recent events have allowed al-Haq, the southern secessionist movement to come out of the wood-work, demanding a break from Sana’a.

The nomination of Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi as the consensus candidate for the next presidential election and the posting of Mohamed Salem Basendwa as the country’s new Prime Minister did little to calm the tensions, even though they are both from the south.

Al-Houthis, a group of Shia rebel fighters in the northern provinces also used the power-vacuum to expand their territories to neighboring provinces, threatening to directly overrun Sana’a, the capital.

Al-Houthis have long accused the government of persecuting its people for their religious orientation. After almost a decade of on and off armed conflicts the al-Houthis have hinted that they would consider getting back to the negotiating table if they were to be allowed political representation.

And although detractors have argued that political pluralism and a proportionally elected Parliament would weaken the state as they predict politicians will engage in never-ending debates rather than implement much needed change, one cannot draw away from the fact that this system would allow fair representation of the country’s many factions and complex make-up.

Because if Yemen is a Republic it never truly broke away from its feudal past, with Sheikhs acting as little kings in their sheikhdom, many refusing to acknowledge the central government authority.

A parliamentary system could embrace Yemen’s unique structure by reconciling its entities while preserving its tradition.