Although Middle Eastern countries have seen a dramatic rise in the number of national elections, there is a significant problem with “charting” the march of democracy in the region through a narrowly focused analysis of electoral processes. Numerous political, economic and cultural forces affecting electoral outcomes are easily overlooked, particularly in studies of elections that frame such processes within the borders of the nation-state.

Perhaps most important are the ways in which the incumbent elites structure electoral systems to influence election outcomes. These include factors such as voter and candidate eligibility, how electoral districts are drawn, the type of electoral system and the distribution of assembly seats. Restrictions on press freedoms also play a role in influencing outcomes. In addition to limits on what topics journalists and publishers may cover, many governments hold a monopoly on broadcast media. This will change as the new information technologies, such as satellites and the Internet, engender a new information politics, perhaps forcing governments and oppositions to learn to manipulate them as part of their power-seeking strategies. The new technologies may also begin to influence voters, though assess is likely to remain restricted to the economic elite for decades to come.

Elections at the national level cannot be fully understood without reference to experiences with local elections. Since the early 1990s, Muslim Brotherhood members had seen dramatic victories in the elections of numerous professional associations. In Turkey, the Islamist Refat Party also saw its influence expand through local and municipal elections in the past few years. Afraid that these parties might replicate their victories at the national level, both governments adopted a number of measures in hopes of limiting these parties’ influence.

Seemingly vital distinctions, such as between multi-party and non-party elections, may be misleading in terms of how inclusionary an electoral process has been. While the no-party system of the Sudan in 1996 offered little chance for citizens to have a meaningful say in the governance of their country, Iran’s no-party system continues to produce elections which have a visible impact on governance. At the same time, no one expects the multi-party elections in Egypt to produce a change in the country’s leadership. Similarities in electoral systems may therefore prove to be a poor comparative tool without reference to broader political contexts. Another factor that cannot be inferred from comparisons based on electoral data is the role of foreign powers.

Lebanon’s elections have been strongly influenced by the military and political intervention of Israel and Syria. In other countries, non-state actors such as the International Monetary Fund play a limited but important role in electoral politics. In Jordan, King Hussein sought not only to produce a parliament full of loyalists, but one that would approve the IMF structural adjustment program he had already secretly negotiated. [1]

The study of elections must be central to debates about the expansion of political participation in the Middle East. As the chart illustrates, the region has indeed seen a remarkable expansion of electoral processes that may prove crucial to the spread of democracy. Nevertheless, one must be careful to locate elections within a broader political context — one that extends beyond the boundaries of the nation-state that are reproduced in comparative charts. [The chart referred to is available in the print edition of this issue.-Ed.]


[1] Glenn Robinson, “Defensive Democratization in Jordan,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 30 (1998), p. 393.

How to cite this article:

Mark Levine "Charting Elections in the Middle East," Middle East Report 209 (Winter 1998).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This