Yemeni voters hold fast to tribal loyalties: A recently united country is trying to forge a common national identity, writes Charles Richards, Middle East Editor

A FUNNY place, Yemen. It was already a freak in the Arab world, a case of two states forming a union which has actually lasted. The more conservative North Yemen (capital: Sanaa) joined with Marxist South Yemen (capital: Aden) in May 1990.

Then yesterday the union was consecrated with the first multi-party parliamentary elections in the Arabian peninsula.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, ruling elites look with terror at the idea of free elections. Jordan had an open contest, but within the constraints of a monarchy which determines the main defence, foreign and domestic policy. The Algerian ruling party took fright at the prospect of a sweeping victory for the Islamist trend, and cancelled them. The Kuwaiti people's assembly is vibrant rather than effective. And the Saudis, who have always regarded the Yemenis as violent ruffians, live under a king who has shown reluctance to proceed with his promised consultative council.

Opposition parties in Yemen have accused the main parties of ballot-rigging, of filling in soldiers' voting slips in advance. Other accusations are that the richer main parties are buying votes with guns and promises of jobs. But there are opposition parties to express their misgivings. More than 2,000 candidates, including women, contested 301 seats.

Political violence, endemic in Yemen north and south, where men traditionally carry guns, twice delayed the poll. The main parties are largely geographically based: the General People's Congress of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the north, and the Yemen Socialist Party of Vice-President Ali Salem al-Bidh in the south. These have been ruling in coalition. The Yemen Socialist Party has largely shed the Marxist ideology it inherited from its forebears in South Yemen, to present a more moderate image. It maintains a strong party structure. It has been seeking to penetrate tribal areas in the north, and play on rivalries between the main tribal groupings, the Bakil and the Hashid.

More than 40 parties are contesting the elections, the largest being the Yemeni Islah party, an association of Islamists with strong tribal support among the Hashid. One faction around the firebrand Sheikh Abdel-Majeed Zindani is more puritanical. Few believe that voters will subsume strong tribal loyalties to the uncertainties of political ideologies.

The Islamist trend in Yemen has been financed in part from Saudi Arabia, which has always regarded Yemen as within its sphere of influence.

The winner will have to cope with considerable economic problems. These were exacerbated in 1990, when Saudi Arabia expelled 850,000 Yemeni workers, whose remittances made a big contribution to the national economy, because of Yemen's pro-Iraqi stand during the Gulf crisis.

The Gulf crisis could not have come at a worse time, since Yemen was seeking to forge a common national identity, which until unification had been a long-held dream.

Jarallah Omar, a leading figure in the Yemen Socialist Party within the government coalition, proposed going into opposition. He told the London-based Arabic daily al-Hayat: 'In my opinion, the Socialist Party should go into opposition for a while . . . They have been in power for too long. This leads to corruption.'

(Photograph omitted)