Can the General People's Congress in Yemen preserve its clout after the death of Saleh?

Can the General People's Congress in Yemen preserve its clout after the death of Saleh?
The void late former president Ali Saleh has left in the GPC remains unfilled. So is the political party capable of surviving without him or is an absolute eclipse inevitable?
5 min read
04 January, 2018
Saleh's death has inflicted a colossal loss on the party [Getty]
The General People's Congress (GPC) has been Yemen's most popular and influential political party for decades. Its head is dead now, and the remaining leading members have scattered since early last month; the future of the party is uncertain.

Late former president Ali Saleh presided over the GPC since its inception in 1982. The political clout and the prevalent popularity of this party had been invincible during Saleh's rule. However, the GPC presently faces an unprecedented challenge and unclear outlook.

The Houthis killed Saleh and other party members in addition to detaining and disappearing many others in early December. Other members also have fled abroad or to Houthi-free areas. The party's political leverage vanished overnight in front of the well-armed Houthi fighters. The GPC's departed head announced the split of the three-year alliance with the Houthis in early December, but that announcement quickened his end and damaged his long-standing party.  

The GPC began an alliance of convenience with the Houthis in late 2014. Their union was forged to oust Saudi-backed president AbdRabbu Mansour Hadi and his government.

Nowadays, the GPC is in a state of uncertainty. Its charismatic and veteran leader is lifeless, and this may mean the party is dead, too. On the other hand, it remains possible the party may rise to the occasion, absorb the recent blows and overcome the confusion.

Survival or eclipse?

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The void Saleh has left in the GPC remains unfilled, and the man's departure has inflicted a colossal loss on the party. This is why some political observers say Saleh is the GPC, and the GPC is Saleh. Some are of the view that the GPC will not be capable of surviving without Saleh, and thus its absolute eclipse is inevitable.

The GPC used to have strong networks of influential tribal leaders, military commanders and seasoned politicians. It had established deep presence in the society through its organised political activities and loyal members across Yemen.

In the course of Saleh's rule, the GPC capitalised on its clout as the ruling party in the country for decades. With this privilege is gone, it is unguaranteed the party's vast popularity will not decline.

When Saleh called for commemorating the 35th anniversary of the GPC founding in August, 2017,  countless GPC loyalists flocked to Al-Sabeen Square in Sanaa. Hundreds of thousands willingly listened to the call and gathered to chant pro-Saleh slogans. In essence, a lot of the GPC supporters nationwide do not know the basic facts about the party.

For instance, when was the party established? Why was it established? And does it have a vision? They only know Saleh is the head of the GPC, and that was a sufficient rationale to love it. According to some views, the former president was the soul of the GPC, and now the party lies soulless.

According to some views, the former president was the soul of the GPC, and now the party lies soulless

On the contrary, hope still has room that the GPC can survive and maintain its leading political presence in Yemen. Nowadays, the GPC has more friends than adversaries. When the GPC declared a revolution against the Houthis in early December, internal and external voices welcomed this initiative.

The legitimate government of Yemen expressed support for the GPC's move. Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE also encouraged what they called the GPC-led public uprising against the Iran-allied Houthis.

The Saudi-backed Yemen legitimate government has voiced concern about the GPC future. In the wake of Saleh's death, Yemen's Prime Minister Ahmed Obaid bin Daghr warned against splitting the GPC.

"Any further steps towards dividing the GPC is a step towards the unknown. The party will collapse because of ignorance and irrational emotions," he said.

"We need a political and military unity to regain the unified Yemen of 1990."

The prime minister himself is a leading GPC figure, but he defected from Saleh, rejecting to continue allying with the Houthis. Also, president Hadi, a GPC leader, reacted to his predecessor's demise, expressing condolence to Saleh's family, the GPC's loyalists and all the Yemeni people. This is to say this party still has leading figures in the south and the north, but the lack of consensus on what is next may devastate this political body for life.

This party still has leading figures in the south and the north, but the lack of consensus on what is next may devastate this political body for life

Parties shrink, movements rise

The role of the political parties have weakened in Yemen as they are no longer in control of the political arena in the country. But movements have tremendously risen in the north and south.  

Today, the Houthi movement is in the lead in the north, and it is overridden by none especially in areas under its grip.

Additionally, the southern secessionist movement has grown largely powerful, and it does not currently seem to have a tough political rival. The Houthi movement in the north has a government to run the situation there, and the southern movement has what is being called the Southern Transitional Council which was created to stand for the southern people.

The rise of these movements occurred in the wake of the 2011 uprising breakout. Over the past seven years, the political parties were keen to undermine each other while these movements capitalised on the tumultuous time to deepen their presence, ultimately emerging as robust forces in the scene.

Accordingly, Yemen's political parties, including the GPC, may not have the power now to mobilise the people or shape the public opinion as they used to do in the past. 

Khalid Al-Karimi is a freelance reporter and translator. He is a staff member of the Sanaa-based Yemeni Media Center and previously worked as a full-time editor and reporter for the Yemen Times newspaper.