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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 September 2006, 07:50 GMT 08:50 UK
Crucial role for Yemen monitors
By Ginny Hill
Bilad al-Rous, Yemen

In the compound outside the local administration building, the police chief and his men are smoking and idling in the sun, leaning on their battered Kalashnikovs as they chat.

Claudia Aranda and Carlos Albisu
Claudia and Carlos are spending a month in Yemen ahead of the poll
A camouflaged pick-up truck with a mounted anti-tank gun is parked nearby.

The windscreen displays several images of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the uniformed driver is playing pro-government music on the sound system.

Inside the building, Claudia Aranda and Carlos Albisu, members of the European Union (EU) Election Observation Mission, are ensconced in talks with local election candidates and officials.

This is Bilad al-Rous district, less than 30 miles (50km) south of Yemen's capital, Sanaa.

The 16,000-strong population, spread out among 50 villages, forms a stronghold of Mr Saleh's ruling party, the General People's Congress (GPC), and constitutes his tribal base.

The president's home turf - the village of Beit al-Ahmar - is only 10 miles away.

The GPC's support here is so strong that there is no visible sign of support for any of Mr Saleh's presidential rivals and there is no opposition candidate standing in the local elections, only the incumbent councillor and two independents.

Cultural barriers

Carlos and Claudia are both long-term observers, spending a month in Yemen ahead of the joint presidential and local elections, and one of 20 teams operating in each of Yemen's governorates.

Mr Reisani
We want the international media to see that we have fair, just and democratic elections in Yemen
Hafdullah al-Reisani

It is their job to talk to the voters, get to grips with the local issues and establish the procedures that will be in place on election day.

"We spend every day in the field. It can take time to get a satisfactory answer to our questions, even with a good interpreter, but we'll stay until we've clarified our points," says Claudia.

The election observers aren't just facing a language barrier. Throughout Yemen, the EU's culture of transparency is coming face to face with close networks of traditional tribal and family loyalties.

"People can be a little cautious and reluctant to open up at first but we remind them that the Yemenis themselves invited us to come here," says Carlos.

Raising standards

During lunch at a road-side restaurant, the EU team cuts a very different profile from their hosts.

The election committee, sporting full-length robes, woollen shawls and curved ceremonial daggers, sit alongside Claudia in her Puma trainers and cropped hair, and Carlos in his short-sleeved shirt.

But there is certainly a spirit of co-operation.

Roadside poster promoting anti-firearms message
Officials hope voters will heed a ban on firearms at polling stations
"We welcome Claudia and Carlos. We want the international media to see that we have fair, just and democratic elections in Yemen," says Hafdullah al-Reisani, the GPC councillor who is standing for re-election after six years in office.

His sentiment is supported by the chair of the district electoral committee, Ahmed Saleh al-Naheem. "We're glad that Claudio and Carlos will be present on election day," he says.

But Ahmed, who represents the opposition People's Union of Popular Forces, adds: "We also want the EU monitors to raise our electoral standards."

Democratic principles

On 20 September, the 100-strong EU team will be supported by parallel but separate domestic and international monitoring operations. It's the first time that Yemen's elections will be monitored on this scale.

Yemen's four million women voters will be asked to remove the veil so the photos on their identity cards can be checked by female election officials.

And the Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendum is hoping that Yemen's men will heed the ban on guns in polling stations and prevent the violence and bloodshed that has blighted Yemen's previous elections and already claimed at least seven lives in this campaign.

"During Yemen's parliamentary elections in 2003, we documented credible reports of political intimidation, underage voting, vote buying and improper behaviour by security forces," says Robin Madrid, director of the US-funded National Institute for Democracy.

"This election is an important opportunity for Yemen to demonstrate that it respects democratic principles and the monitors have a crucial role to play."


SEE ALSO
Yemen gets real taste of democracy
15 Sep 06 |  Middle East
Profile: Yemeni candidates
19 Sep 06 |  Middle East
Q&A: Yemen votes
18 Sep 06 |  Middle East
Deadly stampede at Yemeni rally
12 Sep 06 |  Middle East
Country profile: Yemen
12 Sep 06 |  Country profiles

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