Elections in the Middle East still do matter
This year will be a time of elections in many parts of the Arab world.
Elections generally are designed to give voters the reins of power but they only really work when all sides respect the rules of the game: campaign openly, do not cheat, do notthreaten or coerce opponents and their followers and accept the outcome gracefully.
Those who lose should work constructively as part of the legitimate opposition. A healthy opposition serves to keep those in power in check.
For many politicians or would-be leaders, the temptation of power is too much. To attain a leadership position, they will lie, cheat, kill and contest the counting of votes. Some will resort to the use of the military if they have the right connections.
Yet elections in the Middle East and North Africa do matter, despite the many caveats and the juxtaposing of autocracies, theocracies and authoritarian rulers, the whole sprinkled with a mixture of so-called democracy.
There will be the opportunity to witness legislative elections in Iraq next May. Two months earlier, Egypt votes for a president.
There is a vote scheduled for Libya, assuming those who brought havoc on the country can stop fighting long enough to allow citizens to voice their choice for leadership through the ballot and not the bullet. Libya has gone from foreign colonisers to a brief independence period when it was ruled by a royal family, which was ousted by the brutal dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi, to the current mayhem.
It is evident that elections do not always yield greater democratic freedoms but they beat all alternative ways of managing a country. In Iran, elections have always led to continued theocratic rule under one wing or the other of the clerics. The clerics use election results as a stamp of approval for their rule. Committing a crime against the state is bad enough but when the crime becomes a crime against the will of God, the picture changes drastically.
In Turkey, the imperial ambitions of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan do not mean respect for liberties and human rights at home. Re-election is essentially guaranteed but courting Turkish nationalists in preparation for the next Turkish elections is fuelling anti-Kurdish military action. That threatens regional stability.
Elections may not amount to stability and security in strife-plagued countries such as Libya and Iraq.
As mentioned earlier, there is no room for surprises. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expected to win re-election. The only question is how free the government will allow the political debate to be during the campaign.
Even in a place like Tunisia, where there are guarantees of free and fair elections, the population’s mind is not necessarily focused on voting even if political parties are jockeying for seats. Local elections in Tunisia can be an indicator of what local democracy can look like, especially if Tunisian legislating manages to approve a legal text organising the elections.
Elections still do matter. They remain the best avenue to share power even in the tense environment found in the Middle East and North Africa. The alternative is open ethnic, sectarian and ideological strife. Elections could be used to overcome sectarian cleavages in Iraq even when Iranian interference there is a given.
Elections can give citizens a stake in the running of their own societies. Marginalised and disenfranchised citizens can be drawn to extremist movements. Elections offer a way for societies to discuss their present and future, away from the ill-fated democracy agendas such as those ill-advisedly pushed by the Bush and Obama administrations.
Elections are about building and reconstruction. They are about renewal — what the “Arab spring” was supposed to bring about. Unfortunately, that is not exactly what happened in most of the Arab world. Elections could, however, bring a dose of relative stability to a region that badly needs it.
It is evident that elections do not always yield greater democratic freedoms but they beat all alternative ways of managing a country.