YEMEN:

Election Bug Catches 1,000 Youth

July 12, 2012

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Monitors/observers help Yemen take a small step forward on Election Day.

If it takes a catalytic moment to galvanize a large number of people, Yemen has been in the throes of that moment for some time. Though things did come to a head, at least figuratively, in February when the country held its presidential elections. Despite only one candidate on the ballot, Yemenis turned out to vote, begging the question, ‘why?’

“We participated. We showed that Yemen is different from other countries. And it is our only choice. It is either this, or succeeding in a different way, but in that way, people will die. The elections are also a way of asking if people want Saleh [former president] or not and to prove he is not wanted,” said twenty-year old Marwa, a youth activist who took part in the demonstrations that led to the ouster of Yemen’s former autocratic ruler, President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

For youth such as Marwa, it was not only the first time they were voting in their lives, but also they were given the opportunity to engage in the actual electoral process. Prior to the election, the USAID-funded Community Livelihoods Project provided a grant to the Holool Foundation, a Yemeni non-profit dedicated to combating unemployment and poverty, by training 1,000 youth to become elections monitors and observers. Having a multi-fold purpose, the election’s project provided employment to youth while also educating them about electoral processes. According to a Holool Foundation and its non-profit partner, Resonate! Yemen Foundation’s report about the project, another aim of the activities was to bring the voices and ideas of young Yemenis into the public discourse as they are major stakeholders. Three-quarters of Yemen’s population is under 30 years of age and 46-percent under age 15.

“When I was at the voting station, the paper was in front of me but I just stood there staring [as if trying to decide who to vote for]. ‘Are you kidding?!’ said one girl who was watching me, ‘What is this election for anyway? There is only one candidate!,'” said Marwa, who served as a monitor for the elections. “I told her that I knew that, but it was still important because by voting, we are showing to other countries that we can follow democratic processes and we are doing it to save Yemen.”

During the election, project youth alternated between being election monitors or observers, so that they would get the full benefit of the experience. Easily identifiable with their elections’ uniforms, youth stationed at 313 randomly chosen election centers discussed issues with voters and encouraged them to go through with voting. Also, another first for Yemen, an SMS system was established so that the public could report on any corruption, fraud or violence at the polls. Youth monitors reviewed the messages on screens with large feeds and filtered them to the relevant election center.

For messages of concern, youth observers called the election center to have monitors investigate the allegations and take action. Messages were also posted on a website so that voters could stay up to date with the election in real time.

“In the beginning, I thought no-one would participate and they wouldn’t understand [how to use the SMS service]. I was shocked to see the public participating. It was the first time in Yemen. I felt proud and talked to my friends about it and they said to let us know how to get involved next time around,” said Marwa. “In total we received 9,000 SMS. Even the U.S. Ambassador was surprised! I thought to myself that if we get this many SMS’s when there is only one candidate in the elections — so, what would happen if more than one candidate participated?!”

For a first, overall the February election went off well although monitors did report that 16 centers reported incidents of encouraging potential voters to boycott the elections, 7 election centers reported the bribing of voters and 8 election centers reported voter intimidation. Other incidents involved the lateness in the opening and closing of polling stations. After a year of protests, the early presidential elections marked a beginning of a two-year transitional period for Yemen. During this period it is anticipated that a national dialogue will be held, constitutional reforms will take place, elections laws reviewed and conclude with parliamentary elections.

“One day, I will be President – although Ambassador or Minister will be ok, too! I could become Minister of Defense,” said Marwa. “People keep saying it’s difficult, but I want to do it because when I was younger I wanted to go into the military, but the only job given to women was checking bags at the airport. I wanted to be a Captain. I want to be high up so I can have more influence.”

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As a representative of youth activists, Marwa proves that Yemeni youth require only the basic of opportunities to become engaged in the political discourse that will lead their country on the path of democratic systems. Youths demonstrated through their efforts, innate talent, capacity for hard work and commitment to the task at hand. For the Community Livelihoods Project, it was also an opportunity to fulfill its mandate combining an intensive works program while helping develop the skills of good citizenship.

Giving a thumbs’ up for voting.

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