x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Yemeni youth disaffected with politics

Young people are squeezed out as older politicians dominate country's multiparty system.

Elder statesmen hold sway in Yemeni politics.
Elder statesmen hold sway in Yemeni politics.

SANA'A // Despite living in a young democracy with a multiparty system that started only in 1990, many young Yemenis are losing interest in joining political parties which they see as outdated and unrepresentative of their views. Ali Hussein, a 29-year-old graduate from Sana'a University, said he was quitting Islah, the main Islamic opposition party, because its values no longer met his needs.

"Islah is a big party controlled by traditional forces that do not give space for youngsters to voice their views," Mr Hussein said, adding he joined the party when he was 12 because his family were all members. "You find that when these young people reach a certain level of education and knowledge, they start expressing their views which the leaders of the party do not like. They get frustrated and then quit the party," he said, adding that many young Yemenis wanted to discuss human rights and secular issues.

However, he said the party is still the biggest in terms of recruiting new members because of its Islamic foundation which holds appeal in Yemen's strict Islamic society. "Islah is very active in universities and mosques because it is able to facilitate the admission of some new students. But the most important reason for its ability to attract new members is its Islamic discourse that appeals to everybody in a religious society," he said.

Another reason young Yemenis are losing interest in politics is that elder party members are retaining all the key positions for themselves. "Unless the leaders of these parties - in their 60s and 70s - give the flag to youngsters to carry on and run the parties in accordance with the due course of time changes, these parties might die out," Suha Bashreen, a member of the Youth Development Centre, a local non-governmental organisation, told a workshop earlier this month.

"It has become recently noticeable that youngsters are leaving political parties which have failed to present themselves as forums for enthusiastic young people who can make their voices heard," Ms Bashreen said. According to Jamal al Shami, chairman of Democracy School, a Sana'a based non-governmental organisation that promotes democratic values among youth in Yemen, young people need to take more of a leading role in parties.

"Some parties do not even have youth departments and if they exist in parties like Islah and [the ruling People's General Congress] PGC, they are not run by young people and therefore, do not reflect the youth aspirations," said Mr Shami. There are no figures for the number of young people in political parties, but youth between the ages of 10-29 represent 44.2 per cent of Yemen's 20 million population.

Although youngsters make up about 57 per cent of the total membership of the Yemeni Socialist Party - one of the groups in the opposition coalition, youth and women together only have about a 15 per cent representation in their general conferences, according to Ms Bashreen. And in Islah's conference in February, only five women had reserve seats in the central committee. "Political parties do not nominate young members to run in elections. And if they do, it is because of their tribal or social influence rather than their competence. The leaders of these parties who are as old as the political pluralism in the country are not for change. This is why young people are not able to operate well in their political parties and take over key positions," Mr Shami said.

The parties, however, say they are working to accommodate their young members. Jalal Fakirah, vice chairman of the al Mithaq institute of the ruling GPC, said the representation of youth in his party has expanded. "Youth representation in the leading positions of the congress hierarchy, like the central committee, has increased from 50 per cent in the fifth conference to around 70 per cent in the seventh conference," said Mr Fakirah.

Ms Bashreen said the three main opposition parties, including Islah, the socialists and the Nasserites, claim to be preparing their youth to take over leadership positions, but there had been no examples of this. "Most of the respondents said in a diplomatic way that despite the theoretical emphasis in these parties on the role of youngsters, the reality is completely different," she said. In addition, many youngsters were concerned about joining opposition parties, as there had been instances of harassment and intimidation. Some opposition party members had even lost their government jobs, Ms Bashreen said.

Since 1990 when the politically separate north and south were united, Yemen has been seen by the international community as one of the few Arab states taking concrete steps towards democratisation, based mainly on three successful parliamentary elections held in 1993, 1997 and 2003. In 2003, the ruling party won a landslide victory, winning 226 out of a total of 301 elected seats. But the make-up of parliament has led some to question how democratic the country is.

Over 30 per cent of the seats are taken by tribesmen, businessmen have 26 per cent, military figures have eight per cent and 13 per cent is taken by what has been described as the "new-traditional elite", meaning the sons of tribal sheikhs and political leaders who have received some education but obtain power though their fathers and families. @email:malqadhi@thenational.ae