Elections Year in the Middle East: Change or no Change?

Elections are the basis for democracy but they are rare in the Middle East. Even when there are elections, they are generally façade and the leaders are made through selections. The Arab Spring created an opportunity to realize democratic aspirations for Arabs but it faced a major setback in Egypt and could not topple the last Baath regime in Syria. The region is living a harsh struggle between the people power and the status quo forces. It is election year in several critical countries of the Middle East and this article ai ms to elaborate the significance of the elections in Turkey, Algeria, Iraq, Syria and Egypt.

The first three countries held elections earlier this year. On March 30, 2014 Turkey held local elections under a politically motivated graft operation to topple the Justice and Development Party (AK Party). The operation was led by the Gulen movement which was formerly known for its apolitical stance. The municipal elections that normally focus on the local services turned into a national referendum on Erdogan’s political future while the Gulen movement and other opposition parties joined forces together against the AK Party government. The elections became a serious test for the Turkish model of democracy and development but the government passed the test with a strong public support for the AK Party. As a result of the Turkish elections, the region’s rare experience signified the persistence of democracy and development known as the Turkish model.

Algeria held its presidential elections in the middle of April 2014. Algeria is known with its huge oil and gas reserves and is a country which avoided the Arab Spring that shook the Arab World in 2011. After losing one and a half million martyrs for its independence in the 1950s, Algeria was ruled by the generation of freedom fighters against France under the Front for National Liberation (FLN) and under a military tutelage. After the military intervention that cancelled the prospect of the Islamist Islamic Front of Salvation (FIS), the civil war cost some 200 thousand lives in what is called the Black Decade of the 1990s. Arab Spring caused popular protests in Algeria but they were contained by the government’s carrot-and-stick policies and by increased subsidies on food and housing.

Abdulaziz Bouteflika gained serious respect from the population because he brought stability after the civil war and opened Algeria to outside. During the elections, he was 77 years old and did not appear much in public due to his age and illnesses. However, he still won the elections because there were no serious alternatives present and people were scared of ensuing chaos. There are talks about rift between the civilian rule of the FLN and the powerful military in Algeria but the issue seems to be postponed. The rifts might emerge anytime as a result of a general concern about the age and health of the old ruling generation. The re-election of Bouteflika as a president in April 17 of 2014 means the continuation of the old regime. However, the future is anybody’s guess.

Parliamentary elections were held in violence stricken Iraq on April 30, 2014. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 opened Pandora’s Box in the region that suffered from the lack of democracy, basic rights and freedoms. Sectarian divisions and the imposition of democracy from outside hindered the real democratization process in the country. Despite the limited number of deaths during the American invasion, more people died in resistance against the invaders and in the sectarian conflict. Iraq is ever split between the Shia and the Sunna as well as between the Arabs and the Kurds. The withdrawal of American troops allowed Iran to influence Iraqi policies during the Maliki rule. By controlling the military and with the American and Iranian help, Maliki pacified the opposition groups. He won the elections on late April easily while the country suffers from the lack of security, economic and social services along with the sectarian conflict with the Sunni Arabs and cold war with the Kurds. Therefore, the Iraqi elections will not lead to any significant change in Iraq that suffers from serious socio-economic and security problems.

There will be two more elections in two important Arab countries within a month but the outcome of the elections is guaranteed to have significant implications. The first one is Egypt’s presidential elections that will be in held on May 23-24, 2014. Following the fall of Ben Ali regime in Tunisia due to the mass protests, Egyptians went to the streets and demanded real democracy immediately. Egyptian army sacrificed Mubarak but maintained the old regime by gaining time because the High Military Council controlled the transition process where they divided Islamist and secular revolutionaries and by allowing the revival of the old regime with its media, bourgeoisie and bureaucracy. After the election of Mohammed Morsi, the military led the campaign to topple the Muslim Brotherhood rule in June 2013 through a military coup sanctioned by the traditional institutions such as the sheikh al-Azhar and the Coptic Church.

After they were disappointed with the military coup, many secular groups such as April 6 movements also withdrew their support from the coup government. The revolutionaries expected a real democracy right after the fall of Morsi as they observed a return to the Mubarak era. The military crackdown on anti-coup protesters killed at least 1400 since the coup and hundreds are sentenced to death in speedy trials. The regime plays the terror card to suppress any serious opposition. The Nassirite Hamdeen Sabahy and General Sisi are two official candidates but the General owns the game. With or without rigging the results, el-Sisi can easily win the elections. The Tahrir youth deposed Mubarak with a call for ‘democracy now’ and some even supported the military intervention to topple Morsi in order to bring full democracy. However, Sisi said it would take 25 years to establish a real democracy. In the end, the elections seal a return to Mubarak-era politics.

In less than a month, Syria will also hold presidential elections with two candidates alongside Bashar Al-Assad. After the death of his father Hafez al-Assad, Bashar took office as a selected candidate of the regime rather than by a real election. He was expected to introduce political reform but he failed to deliver it during his fourteen years in the office. After the breakup of the Arab Spring in North Africa, the Syrian people demanded democratization through peaceful protests but the Assad regime responded with bullets. The conflict slowly turned into a sectarian civil war where more than 200 thousand people died and six million people were displaced inside and outside the country. The Assad regime that keeps pounding its cities with barrel bombs and missiles has been daily announcing the renewal of the presidential elections on June 3rd. Like all previous elections, it will be a façade only because it is impossible to talk about a democracy, a government, or a state. Western powers are not sincere about the fall of the Assad regime that is supported with money, weapons and soldiers by the Eastern camp, namely Iran and Russia. Therefore, no surprise in the Syrian elections but the final outcome of the conflict will be shaped in the coming years.


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