This is what Arab election season looks like in 2014

April 21

Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika casts his ballot during the presidential election in Algiers, April 17, 2014. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

Arab democracy is in full swing, at least on paper. Algerians reelected the ailing, 77-years-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika to a fourth presidential term last week. Iraq’s potentially pivotal parliamentary elections are set to be held on April 30, amidst spiraling violence and deep political consternation. Egypt has scheduled presidential elections for May 26 and 27, with former general and coup-leader Abdel Fatah al-Sissi fortunate to have found at least one opponent to avoid the appearance of a plebiscite. War-torn Syria plans to hold a widely mocked presidential election on June 3.

All told these four elections cover 183 million people, or some 50 percent of the population of the Arab world. (Lebanon’s parliament is also set to choose a new president on April 23, but isn’t actually holding an election.) Few expect these elections to matter much. Only in Iraq’s parliamentary ballot is real power at stake, and the outcome unknown in advance. The other three fall far short of the minimal requirements of democracy: that they be relatively free and fair, to institutions with actual power, with real uncertainty about the outcomes. Egypt’s will take place amidst a massively repressive atmosphere of intimidation, arrest, and institutional bias. Syria’s will be a farcical episode amidst horrific civil war and sectarian brutality. Algeria’s would have felt right at home any time in the last three decades. Why bother?

That we even bother to ask this question says something about the extent to which the Arab uprisings raised hopes for something more. After all, over the previous decades, Arab countries voted all the time and nobody expected much from the results. Who could forget such nail biters as Egypt’s 2005 presidential election (88.6 percent for then-President Hosni Mubarak) or 2010 parliamentary election (95 percent of the seats won by the ruling party) or Tunisia’s riveting 2009 presidential election (89.6 percent to then-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali)? Occasionally, an election might have been a bit more open, competitive and significant – Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary election, perhaps, or Jordan’s 1989 parliamentary vote – but only within carefully defined limits.

In the years following 2011, there was reason to hope for something more from Arab elections – hopes vindicated to varying degrees by competitive, surprising, reasonably free and fair, and meaningful elections in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. The parliaments and presidencies produced by those elections struggled to consolidate their legitimacy amidst the deep institutional uncertainty, ongoing contentious mobilization, and political polarization that followed. But while elections have never been sufficient for meaningful democracy, they are manifestly necessary. It is painfully ironic that the mantra “democracy is more than elections” took hold following one of the only Arab elections that actually approached the minimal standard for democracy. Those votes really were different from the dozens of earlier elections across the region, offering a tantalizing potential for the consolidation of representative, accountable government and the peaceful rotation of power. That’s now mostly gone, with even the idea of democratic legitimacy mortally wounded. Few of the current round of elections have much to do with any of that.

Instead, the current round of elections should point us back toward the pre-uprisings literature on authoritarian elections, nicely summarized by a 2009 Jennifer Gandhi and Ellen Lust review essay. Elections under authoritarianism serve many purposes, none of which involve the peaceful rotation of power, the imposition of accountability on elites, or the representation of citizen interests. Instead, as Jason Brownlee points out, they do things like offering a safety valve for regimes, serving as a form of political theater, and activating patronage networks.

That literature suggests that one key function of the Syrian and Egyptian presidential elections is to signal a return to normality following a period of turbulence. Both are essentially plebiscites, with token opposition for the sake of appearances. The elections in both cases are likely meant to signal a return to normality at home, closing the door on the past three years of turmoil while honoring the formalities of constitutional procedure. This seems unlikely to succeed, given Syria’s continuing bloodshed and Egypt’s escalating cycle of repression and violence. But the regimes will try to focus the attention of the public on the largely meaningless horse race and pageantry of the election, diverting attention from other difficult issues such as political prisoners or ongoing violence while relentlessly consolidating the appearance of permanence for the new status quo.

Another key purpose of those two elections is to re-establish legitimacy abroad. Such elections might aspire to showing enough of a democratic process to make it possible for foreign backers such as the United States, European Union, and international financial institutions to resume normal relations after the unpleasantness of a military coup and mass killings and arrests (Egypt) or horrific war crimes and barbaric brutality (Syria). Egypt, in particular, is relentlessly marketing the election abroad as a sign of adherence to a road map toward a return to civilian rule. It is highly unlikely that Syria’s gambit will find any takers abroad, but Egypt’s bid seems more likely to succeed, given the ill-concealed, Gulf-backed impatience of many Western capitals to resume normal relations with Cairo despite its ongoing human rights abuses.

In both Egypt and Syria, presidential elections also seem designed to preempt the possibility, however remote, of internationally-mooted avenues for consensual regime change. While at this point few outside the Muslim Brotherhood see a restoration of the Mohamed Morsi presidency as either possible or desirable, the military regime that has controlled Egypt since the July 3 coup remains acutely aware that the imprisoned Morsi remains Egypt’s legitimately elected president. Sisi’s election will aim to put an end to that. Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s plans to stand for election would derail ideas developed abroad for the formation of a transitional government to oversee elections without Assad.

Algeria’s election was less about restoring normality or preempting other political trajectories than it was business as usual, at least on the surface. Bouteflika won with 81.5 percent despite being virtually unable to talk or move during his slow recovery from a stroke in 2013. Most of the major opposition parties, secular and Islamist alike, boycotted, and publicly cast doubt on the claimed 51.7 percent turnout. As Frederic Volpi points out, the main unique point about this election is that the president’s reelection primarily serves to buy time while the inner circle of the regime settles on a successor. Some wonder whether this election could ultimately become something like the farcical Egyptian election of 2010, undermining faith in the legitimacy of the system as a whole. But for now it seems more a missed opportunity for change, with a largely apathetic population seemingly uninterested in dramatic change.

The one election of this group that doesn’t quite fit the “elections under authoritarianism” mold is Iraq’s parliamentary vote, slated for April 30. Iraq’s election remains the only one of the bunch that offers real competition and at least moderate uncertainty about the outcome. The election could accelerate or halt Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s centralization of power, an authoritarian entrenchment which would ultimately relegate future Iraqi votes to that standard mode of Arab authoritarian elections. Unfortunately, as Ned Parker’s masterful but grim overview makes clear, these elections are being held under extremely difficult security conditions, which deeply color the politics surrounding a potentially fateful vote. Despite widespread dissatisfaction with Iraq’s leadership and deep failures of governance, the escalating security crisis and accompanying sectarianism make it difficult for any serious challengers to the entrenched political class to gain traction.

All of these elections, and the parliamentary ones which presumably will follow in Egypt, will also have a role to play in the consolidation of patronage networks, the cooptation of elites, and the division of potential opposition. As Ellen Lust has frequently argued, authoritarian elections typically serve as a key instrument in regime practices of cooptation, manipulation of the political system, and “competitive clientalism.” Elites who deliver their voters can anticipate gaining the spoils of association with the regime, while those who do not can find themselves cut off from state resources. Faced with the certainty of regime victory, opposition forces face a choice between boycotts, which are unlikely to affect the outcome, or participation, which will ratify the legitimacy of the vote. Such elections might not be democratic in any meaningful sense, then, but they still matter to the elites whose interests are at stake.

Iraq aside, this current wave of elections mostly represents an attempted return to the political structures of the pre-Arab uprising days. They are more Morocco 2011 and Jordan 2013 than Tunisia 2011 or Egypt 2011 to 2012. They have no more to do with democracy than did the many carefully controlled elections of the last few decades. Whether such practices can be successfully revived in today’s hyper-politicized, intensely mediated, violent, and uncertain political systems is another question. Instead of wondering who will win, we might be asking whether elites will once again buy into the old games, whether a deeply mobilized street will be placated, whether electoral ritual will be followed by an easing of state abuses of human rights, whether an election can break the cycle of violence and repression, whether the international community will go along for the ride … and whether Egypt’s coup and regional turmoil have fatally wounded the very idea of democratic legitimacy in the region.

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