Making the most of the Obama backlash

The Republican Party is celebrating success after two of its members won House seats in New York and

The Republicans are having a moment. And that's despite the fracas over Monday's presidential debate - when the would be candidates seemed intent on ripping shreds out of front runner Rick Perry.

Today the GOP must surely be popping open the champagne, after trouncing Democrats in not one, but two special elections for the US House of Representatives.

The Republicans had expected a win in the largely rural district in Nevada -- but not the size of the win, which was a landslide. And it's a state that's seen as key to Barack Obama's re-election hopes. And the Democrats suffered a rare defeat in one of their heartlands, New York -- as retired television executive Bob Turner triumphed in the seat formerly held by Anthony Weiner, forced out over a Twitter sex scandal.

Before the vote, House Speaker John Boehner had declared "This is not a district that Republicans have any right to believe that we can win" - in fact, it's the first Democratic loss in Queens or Brooklyn in a generation. Their 70 year-old candidate, whose career highlight was creating the Jerry Springer show, ran for the same seat two years ago, in his first electoral foray, and came a distant second to Weiner. This time, though, it was different: a triumphant Turner telling supporters "We're ready to say, Mr President, we are on the wrong track".

Although the more measured commentators are cautioning against a rush to judgement, these twin defeats are inevitably being interpreted as a backlash against President Obama, among voters fearful about the state of the economy, and sceptical about his leadership.

In New York, the figures could hardly be starker: the President's approval rating was a meagre 30 per cent -- and although the Democrats began with a financial advantage, pro-Republican groups poured cash and energy into their campaign, focusing on the decision to legalise gay marriage, a policy deeply unpopular with the seat's large population of Orthodox Jews.

But is it really possible to use special election results as a prediction of what might happen to Democrats across the country next year? Possibly not. Essentially they're snapshots of the popular mood, rather than reliable indications of a trend, and as Nate Silver, from the five-thirty-eight blog, warns -- "special elections are always difficult - they are low turnout, high intensity races."

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Steve Israel was keen to play down the New York result, insisting they were "not reflective of what will happen in November 2012 when Democratic challengers run against Republican incumbents who voted to end Medicare and cut Social Security while protecting tax loopholes for big corporations and the ultra wealthy."

But according to Politico, the mood in a conference call among top campaign aides last night, was 'awful', quoting a source who said that "people feel betrayed, disappointed, furious, disgusted, hopeless". No punches pulled there, then.

On the record, House democratic whip Steny Hoyer was slightly more measured: "Do I think it's an overall statement on the president alone? No. Do I think it will be interpreted as being a statement on Obama? That's probably correct." And in more bad news for the party - labour unions were pretty much disengaged from the race, even in this heavily blue-collar district. Mirror that on a national scale, and the party really would be in trouble.

There's a glimpse of blue sky though, for worried Democrats: Obama's new jobs act - and the prospect of a reinvigorated President with a coherent message to sell. New York Rep Eliot Engel welcomed the reappearance of "the feisty Barack Obama, the one that we knew and loved and voted for in 2008".

The party will be hoping voters will start thinking likewise, and that the snapshot revealed in last night's special elections can be eclipsed by the political campaign ahead.

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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood