Elections in the Arab world

Writing for Marc Lynch’s blog, Nathan Brown of George Washington University writes that the Palestinian elections called for by Mahmoud Abbas are not really that important because they were constitutionally required.  Besides, elections in the Arab world don’t mean the same thing that they mean to us:

In the Arab world, elections are routine.  It is their cancellation or postponement that has to be explained. As my Carnegie colleague Michele Dunne has reminded me on several occasions, the timing of elections is usually fairly clearly established in Arab laws and constitutions.  On a few occasions—generally if there is extensive international intervention or if there is internal crisis—elections are postponed. But the days of Arab regimes routinely cancelling elections completely is gone.

Can that be? Is the Arab world really so democratic?  Well, no.  The problem is that while the fact of elections seems to be written in stone, the rules by which they are conducted are written on water. Authoritarian rulers constantly tinker with the formal rules, electoral mechanisms, and oversight of voting in order to get the result they want.  Opposition movements beg, bargain, or threaten boycott to get a place on the ballot and a handful of seats.  So some elections occur on what might be called the Tunisian or Syrian model (overwhelming majority for the regime with token opposition) or on the Jordanian and Egyptian model (where the opposition is allowed to win a few more seats but is kept very safely away from a majority).

The Palestinian system used to be little different.  The law for the 2006 elections was tailored to coax Hamas into running while ensuring it would lose.  But it was designed by a leadership famous for short-term thinking, strategic miscalculation, and dysfunctional internal rivalries.  All those defects were on very public display as the law was written.  And so it misfired.

And that leads us to why it is misleading to ask if Hamas leaders will decide to run.  They can’t, even if they wanted to (which they definitely don’t).  When the 2006 elections led to Hamas’s upset victory, Abbas as head of Fatah threatened to use a series of illegal devices to overturn the result.  The idea seems to have been to keep coming up with new election ideas until a way was found to make sure Palestinians gave the right answer.  Finally, in June 2007 (after Hamas’s takeover of Gaza) he found one that had the virtue of being arguably legal: Abbas issued a new law by decree that not only changed the rules but also all but barred Hamas.

So now we’ve arrived at a position where Palestinian elections really would be different from the Arab norm, if only they could take place.  Because the Palestinian Authority is split in two, both sides have to agree on the rules for elections to go forward. Either side can prevent elections it does not like.  Real elections cannot occur until the two sides come to terms.

And this is why I am claiming that it’s the wrong time for outsiders to be asking about Palestinian elections.  We should not be surprised that the issue has arisen now—these elections have been scheduled for four years.  And we should have been thinking about the issue for that entire period.  We weren’t, and it’s too late now to decide how to react.

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