By Jennifer O’Riordan
Despite deep divisions over their country’s future, Yemenis achieved a milestone Feb. 21: a 60 percent turnout at the polls for a presidential election.
An agreement signed in November by warring forces and President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been in power since 1978, laid the foundations for a two-year political transition. A compromise made Saleh’s vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the sole candidate in last month’s election.
As part of the Responsive Governance Project, which is led by Counterpart International, Yemeni civil society organizations learned how to raise awareness about the elections and encourage people to get out and vote.
Understanding public opinion first
Discussion groups proved to be vital in creating a focused awareness campaign. Counterpart and its implementing partners trained members of the Yemen Elections Monitoring Network on how to conduct discussion groups and gauge public opinion.
Organizations used a discussion guide that included key questions such as “Do you think your participation in the next presidential election will help solve the current situation in Yemen?” and “Do you think women will play an active role in the election and the transition?”
The guide also suggested potential slogans for the awareness campaign leading up to election day. Some of the slogans used included “Let’s start change—vote” and “Build Yemen by your vote.”
Group participants cited a number of potential barriers to a successful election, among them poor security and efforts by a separatist movement in southern Yemen to suppress turnout.
Some of the concerns were not unfounded. At least 10 people were reported killed in election-related violence in southern Yemen, where separatists demanded a boycott and seized several polling stations.
Despite the violence, most of the more than 12 million of Yemeni citizens eligible to vote cast their ballots.
In the weeks before the voting, the Responsive Governance Project printed and distributed nearly 1.2 million posters, leaflets, banners, “Get Out and Vote” cards and other promotional pieces to organizations and activists in all of Yemen’s 21 governorates. Many groups not on the original distribution list requested copies of the material so that they, too, could raise awareness and encourage people to vote.
The Responsive Governance Project also used leaflet distribution campaigns, educational forums, mobile messaging and vehicles equipped with public-address systems to spread the word.
The election monitoring network worked closely with the governance project during the campaign. It also partnered with the U.S. Embassy to post billboards in major urban centers and received additional support from MTN mobile to deliver pro-election messages to the phone company’s 8 million subscribers.
The voter education effort inspired citizens to inform others in their own communities. Some visited goatherd in remote areas or spread the word through Facebook or by sticking posters on buses traveling between some of Yemen’s main cities.
Counterpart’s work to inform Yemenis of their right to vote and how to do so will also guide civil society organizations for the next elections.
President Hadi has pledged to lead Yemen forward through a two-year transition period in which the armed forces and government institutions are supposed to be restructured, a new constitution drafted and preparations made for multiparty elections in 2014.
The Responsive Governance Project is a three-year, USAID-funded program that works to strengthen government institutions and improve the delivery of public services while encouraging more citizen participation in the political process.