A tale of three troubled elections

A tale of three troubled elections

In a rare phenomenon, this year will see a number of legislative and presidential elections take place across the Arab world. Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and even Libya and Tunisia are all lining up to hold what can only be described as crucial elections. Interestingly, all of these countries are going through sensitive transitional phases and the outcomes will determine their future course, political survival and stability.

It is worth looking at three of these cases in particular and attempt to make some predictions. One thing that Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt have in common is that they are all affected by regional events and cross-border developments. 

In Lebanon, overdue legislative elections will be held in May under a new and largely cumbersome and untested election law, which is a hybrid of proportional and closed lists. So much has been written about the law as a possible game-changer for the traditional players and its effect on their actual share of deputies in the legislature. But it does little to alter the sectarian balance of power that has emerged following the Lebanese Civil War and the Taif agreement, which determined a power-sharing agreement between Muslims and Christians. An attempt to widen the voter base by inviting Lebanese emigrants in Africa, South America, Europe and Australia to register has had modest results; only about 90,000 registered out of an estimated 10 million Lebanese living abroad. 

The reality today is that Lebanese politics remains deeply rooted in sectarianism. The figureheads who represent each sect remain unchanged. But one thing is evidently clear: No matter what happens at the polls in May, Hezbollah will continue to be the main deal-maker and power broker. And, with the current US campaign to weaken and discredit it, Hezbollah and its armed wing — with its Iranian backers — will hold all of Lebanon hostage.

As long as Hezbollah’s agenda transcends Lebanese borders, with Syria and Israel being distinct examples, the factors that could trigger political strife and violence — sectarian polarization being chief among them — will remain active. 
The outcome of Egypt’s presidential election in March is already known: Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will secure a second four-year term as president. But the real story is not about the definite winner, but about the removal of potential contenders to make El-Sisi the sole candidate. It is difficult to accept the reasoning behind this strategy.
This year’s polls in Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq all take place amid domestic uncertainties and regional strife, and may ultimately result in more, rather than less, political disarray.
Osama Al Sharif
El-Sisi’s military background has shaped his style of leadership as president. Egypt has become a political wasteland, a monochrome reflection of a post-revolution, post-counter revolution, business-as-usual reality. While economic indicators have improved, Egyptians are not better off today than they were on the eve of the Jan. 25, 2011, uprising. 
Even those supporting El-Sisi believe the orchestration of the election is embarrassing and difficult to defend. How far the calls by major parties, civil society organizations and political figures to boycott it will affect voter turnout remains to be seen. But one thing is true: There was no need to discredit the electoral process in that manner. It may have inadvertently reset the country’s priorities and deflected attention from El-Sisi’s economic agenda. His second term will be dominated by calls for serious political reforms and questions about the nature of his leadership.

Also in May, Iraq will hold legislative elections that come in the wake of the country’s costly victory over Daesh. Prime Minister Haider Abadi has promised a new beginning and an all-inclusive political process, but there are fears that not much will change and that the Sunni minority will repeat the 2005 election script by boycotting the polls. Again sectarian politics dominate the country, with the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), predominantly Shiite, casting a large shadow over the political landscape. Abadi’s own list is not as inclusive as he claimed and his row with former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who is the head of the Iran-backed Dawa Party, will add further cracks to the Shiite voter bloc.

The timing of the elections is not ideal. Millions of Iraqis, mostly Sunnis, remain displaced, and plans to repatriate them to their provinces, which are in desperate need of reconstruction, have stalled. The rift with the Kurds and disputes over oil-rich territory has complicated matters. In addition, most Iraqis now believe that the system itself is failing and has contributed to a corrupt political environment. Meanwhile, there is a growing feeling among Iraqis that elections only make things worse and bring the country closer to the brink.
These three elections will each be taking place amid domestic uncertainties and, assuming that all goes well and the voting processes are peaceful and uneventful, the outcomes may result in more, rather than less, political disarray.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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