Elections that may (re)shape the Middle East in 2014

Sometimes, it seems as though the only factors which contribute to sketch the future of the Middle East, most of them I laid out in this article, are out of the control of the citizens: sectarianism, repression, foreign intervention, coups (or non-coups)… However, and even though democracy may (still) not be seen as the key strength of the region, several elections are taking place in many of its countries. Concretely eight, nothing less, and in what many consider key countries that do have a say in regional – and often international – issues. This is why, although many may feel tempted to dismiss those events as procedural or even cosmetic moves, we all should take a closer look at the previous steps and the outcome of these votes.

Turkey
A vote in Turkey, in spite of its not being an Arab country, will surely influence the future of the region. Specially if you take into account how the regional sway of its current Islamist Government has waned since last summer, while it had been regarded as a model for years, specially after the Arab Spring broke out. This loss of clout is a side effect of the struggle Political Islam has been enduring across the region, but has mainly a lot to do with the path towards authoritarianism Primer Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose to follow in a country know for its cherished secularism and its Westward-leaning nature. In spite of the latter, it has to be said that a huge part of the population, the ruling party Justice and Development Party’s – AKP – constituency, is extremely conservative. A path many Turks have been revolting (and still do) against since the “Turkish Spring” symbolised by the Gezi protests the country went through in June 2013. Authoritarianism mixed with remarkable doses of corruption at many levels, as has been shown these last weeks – and even months.

Turkey’s population is called to cast a vote this 30 March in local elections, but the key election will be July’s Presidential election (the country’s first ever direct election for president) and, above all, next year’s Parliamentary election. Many believe that the municipal vote, that will be held across thirty major Turkish cities which make up no less than eighty percent of vote, will be a kind of plebiscite that will help Erdogan decide whether to run for President or not – thus doing a job swap with the current president, à la Vladimir Putin. If his AKP shows not able to win the approval they expect, he has already made sure he will be allowed to run for Prime Minister again by overhauling the Party’s bylaws.

Afghanistan
A Presidential election will also be held on 5 April in Afghanistan. And, for once, it seems that the current president, Hamid Karzai , will not seek a third term (probably because the Constitution bans him to). The worst bit? The winning candidate may well be Karzai’s brother or one of his close allies. Do not expect big changes in a country still dominated by violence, a Taliban counter-insurgence that no entity seems able to tame, corruption, thorny relations with the neighbours and again flourishing drug trafficking. The withdrawal of all foreign troops expected to wind up in 2015 will only add excitement to this. Karzai seems too focused on refusing to sign a security agreement with the United States that had already been approved by the Loya Jirga or Afghan Assembly of Notables, arguing that it is preferable for the next Presidentt to take on the responsibility to negotiating and signing it. 
Algeria
A presidential election is scheduled in Algeria for next 17 April. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who’s already 77, has been in power since 1999 and last year had to fly to Paris to go though special treatment after having a mini-stroke, recently announced that he will run again. Although twelve candidates have registered for the April vote, everybody expects him to remain for a fourth term. 

The news did not surprise anyone, but scared both part of the establishment and swathes of Algerians who thought this year would witness not a radical change but at least a transfer of power, a first step towards less of an authoritarian regime. Algeria is in truth an oligarchy that presents a much greater deal of flexibility than many amongst its brethren, within the range determined by the authorities in power. All in all, the Algerian regime could be defined as a “liberalised autocracy” (some people compare it with Russia, some think it maybe represents the model Morocco is heading towards?), a not that repressive regime that notably allows for freedom of speech, as pluralism was already introduced back in 1989 and the state of emergency declared in 1992 was (conveniently) lifted in 2011.


In my last article on the country I already mentioned that Algeria is not as stable a country as people believe it to be. Particularly because what was a military regime has turned into a hodgepodge sometimes compared to a cat fight, chiefly as the main consequence of the fact that Bouteflika, himself a soldier, has been trying to sideline the military for years.The importance of the succession issue has to be emphatically stressed, precisely because the military has always played a very important role in Algeria. Their authority has been also eroded by the fact that the top echelon did not take part in the War of Liberation and doesn’t have what could be called “Revolutionary legitimacy”. This has entailed an increase in strength and size of the secretive DRS, the Intelligence Service, that apparently doesn’t get along that well with the President and was the one to impose the appointment of the current Prime Minister, as they did with Bouteflika himself in 1999. Indeed, it’s not just the President who will have to be replaced, but also other key high-profile authorities, namely the Chief of Staff and the Head of the Mukhabarat. Who will then arbitrate this process? The same dilemma arose twenty years ago, and instead of coming to terms, the elites set off a worrying infighting that allowed the country to descend into violence. And by some accounts, the regime is taking similar steps as in 1988. As a matter of fact, the shift leaves one important question unanswered: even if nowadays it’s a tightened security landscape that guarantees stability, who will have enough political legitimacy to intervene if the situation deteriorates?


Iraq
Iraq is another Arab country in which an election is scheduled to take place soon. A new Parliament will be elected on 30 April. The Iraqi Supreme Court made things easier for the current regime by controversially announcing last summer that the current president Nuri al-Maliki was allowed for a third term. In a country where sectarianism is the key and, in spite of the media’s silence, dozens die every week, an election does not appear to be the way to attain stability and to allow for Iraqis to having the chance to thrive again after years – and even decades – of repressions and war. Despite mounting violence and ongoing protests by the majority of Sunnis, who feel sidelined and even mistreated by the Government, Al Maliki still counts with the support of a large constituency, and particularly with a key partner such as Iran (together with Bashar Al-Assad, who nowadays doesn’t seem to be of help). Almost a year ago, on 20 April Iraq already held local elections, the country´s first vote since US troops left for good in December 2011, a vote that saw itself marred by violence which should not be exclusively seen as a consequence of a spillover of the Syrian war.

Lebanon
After all the political mess Lebanon has been plunged into for months, a new cabinet was at last created last 15 February. And the country suffered from deep labour pains. The new cabinet conforms a government of national interest that has already issued a much-awaited ministerial statement, (vitally agreeing on its responsibility to preserve Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity through all legitimate means and affirming the right of Lebanese citizens to resist Israeli occupation, respond to Israeli aggression and liberate Lebanese occupied territories), thus allowing the Parliament to grant a confidence that will guarantee immunity in the event of a void in the presidency, which is not unlikely to happen.

Now, a new President has to be elected, and the constitutional deadline for the vote theoretically stretches between 25 March and 25 May. There is however a dilemma in the air (of course there is!): should President Michel Suleiman’s term be extended for the sake of stability or should an election happen for the sake of democracy?


Syria
In Syria, a Presidential election is also due to be held this year. Although Bashar Al Assad has never technically been elected, as he was merely “confirmed” by 97% of those Syrians who cast a vote in 2007, he has already announced several times that he will run for re-election again – his seven-year term ends in July. The latest news in this regard came when the UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned this week-end that the vote would doom the peace talks that already stalled last month in Geneva. Nobody expects the elections to be either free or fair, but it will be undoubtedly interesting to see both who participates in the charade and how will the international community (every bit of it) will react. 
Egypt
Investors fretted about the Middle East and North Africa, expropriation risk in Latin America and general capital constraints, the report from the World Bank’s Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) said.
The Fed’s decision this week to reduce the money-printing that has fuelled demand for risky assets is expected to drag on growth in emerging markets next year, with Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey seen as especially vulnerable to a sudden withdrawal of forei ..
Investors fretted about the Middle East and North Africa, expropriation risk in Latin America and general capital constraints, the report from the World Bank’s Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) said.
The Fed’s decision this week to reduce the money-printing that has fuelled demand for risky assets is expected to drag on growth in emerging markets next year, with Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey seen as especially vulnerable to a sudden withdrawal of forei ..
A Presidential vote will also take place in Egypt, in principle in Autumn. In this case, the results are the clearest well known secret of the country. After key moves such as the resignation of the whole Government of which he was Defence Minister and the reshuffle of the Army of which he was the chief, everybody expects Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to announce his candidacy from one moment to the next.

His more than certain victory (be it because of popular acclamation or after massive rigging Mubarak-era style), in spite of the strengths of some of his self-declared rivals such as the socialist Hamdeen Sabbahi, would represent a final step in a process that started last 30 June (or even before) in which the Army has regained full control of the country (if it ever lost it), leaving behind along the way hundreds of deaths, dozens of arrests and a population more polarized than ever.

Repression (not only against the Muslim Brotherhood but also against the ones that led the 2011 Revolution), and therefore fear, have reached unprecedented levels, and desperation is widespread at the sight of a sinking economy where vital ingredients such as tourism and foreign investment are conspicuous by their absence, regional irrelevance and mounting violence. Back to square one, or even worse.

Tunisia
Tunisia, the country where the “Arab Spring” was born, became a reason to believe in a shinier future for the region when its Constituent Assembly approved a text that is by some accounts more advanced than some Western constitutions. The new constitution will see the establishment of a new government by the end of 2014. Once, that is, a new electoral law is approved. And the Islamists, the Ennahda party, have been wise enough to see the perils of overseeing and controlling a rocky constitutional process, and decided to step off power in favour of a technocratic government. Everybody expects them to win in the next vote, although not everybody will be as smooth as it seems: Tunisia will still have to face serious challenges, particularly in the economic and social fields.
Elections, by themselves, don’t decide neither the future of a country, much less the future of a region in which democracy has never been the norm. Their function consists in allowing the electorate to legitimise who they believe has the best vision for its future. The front-runners for most amongst all eight elections have been in politics long enough to know this. George Bernard Shaw said that “democracy is a form of government that substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few“. I believe this quote has never been truer than in the Middle East today.

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