Local politics in the MENA region comes with many challenges

August 20, 2017

Local or municipal elections should, in theory, be a welcome part in any democ­racy but in the Middle East and North Africa region, they come with their own challenges.
Ideally, local elections should free candidates from the ideologi­cal restrictions of their political parties to focus on the specific needs of a particular area or re­gion. They invite voters to have a say in what happens in their own backyard and see tangible change — or not — as opposed to focusing on the bigger picture of where the country, as a whole, is heading.
There is usually a link between local elections and national vot­ing patterns, whether in parlia­mentary or presidential races, that can help or hinder the demo­cratic process of a country.
On the positive side, the voting results may give an indication of how the public views a govern­ment’s performance, allowing it and the opposition to change course in line with the wishes of voters.
On the down side, the ills that plague the fairness of the voting process in national elections in parts of the Arab world would not spare local contests. At the end of the day, municipal elections in such cases can’t offer what the heads of state won’t allow.

For example, local elections in Jordan on August 15 were touted as enhancing the role of citizens in overseeing and participating in decision-making but Jordanians know too well that they don’t live in a democracy, as the king still makes the country’s key deci­sions.
Any promises made during local election campaigns would need to be paid for by funds allo­cated by the central government. The competition for funding may open doors to divisions, especial­ly in areas that contain natural resources.
Having a democratic govern­ment does not necessarily make the task any easier, as can be seen in Tunisia, which has yet to steer out many of the problems that it mostly inherited.
Ahead of its December mu­nicipal elections, the country is already consumed with debates about the distribution of power between the central govern­ment and local authorities, amid unprecedented calls by southern­ers for their regions to receive a percentage of oil and phosphate revenues.
They see their regions as hav­ing suffered from decades-old, unfair policies that led to de­velopmental imbalances, which were to their disadvantage. How to address their grievances with­out stirring tensions with other regions or further straining the central government budget is not going to be an easy task.
In countries where there is a concentration of people who share the same ethnicity or branch of faith in a given area, the problem is more serious as they may call for secession.
For example, the September 25 referendum on the independ­ence of Iraq’s Kurdistan region has stirred controversy in the rest of the country where Arab Iraqis — as well as Turkmen — demand the right to have a say on the future of their country.
At the opposite end, Arabs and Kurds in Iran have long com­plained about marginalisation and discrimination levelled by the central government in Tehran against the regions they popu­late.
The Ahwazi Arabs say that not only they have not benefited from their resource-rich region but they are less likely to secure jobs in their own areas in comparison to Persians from other cities.
The Kurds say they cannot fully practise their cultural rights in the areas in which they are a majority. Such government poli­cies will undoubtedly inflame separatist tendencies as well as violence.
Too much power concentrated in the hands of central govern­ment will most likely cause resentment but some unifying policies are needed to hold a country together. A country’s sta­bility will hinge upon its ability to strike a balance between both factors.