Some of the material in this issue of Middle East Report was generated at the October 2-3, 1998 conference on “Multi-Party Elections in the Arab World: Controlled Contestation and Opposition Strategies,” which as organized by MERIP board members Marsha Pripstein Posusney and Jillian Schwedler. The conference was sponsored by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University in cooperation with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. We are grateful to these institutions for enabling us to publish the excerpts below.

Prospects for the Development of Political Parties and Strategies for Enhancing Political Party Processes in Jordan

In the past, the Jordanian government has adopted strategies intended to weaken political parties systematically, strategies such as changing the electoral system to hinder opposition competition in elections, or restructuring Jordan’s political “map” by unifying centrist parties, only to dismantle them as soon as they had served the end for which they were unified…. The government has also encouraged the rise of a new class of politicians linked with the state. In exchange, opposition political parties and parties independent of government influence have resorted to tactics of resistance in order to preserve their competitive power. These parties have employed election boycotts as a means of short-circuiting official policies and holding the government responsible for policies that hinder pluralism in parliament. Opposition parties have built permanent coordination frameworks that have garnered public and elite support by calling for the convocation of a national conference on reform and committees for resisting normalization of relations with Israel. Opposition parties have also fortified their ranks by reaching out to and mobilizing popular organizations such as the professional associations, encouraging them to play a greater role in confronting official policies meant to isolate and marginalize them. (Hani Hourani)

The Role of the System of Majority Election in the Perpetuation of Communal Rule in Lebanon

Dependence on the plurality system, along with the communal distribution of parliamentary seats, has led to deformation of both the meaning and practice of democracy in Lebanon…[because] the notions of “majority” and “minority” take on different meanings and have very different effects on the electoral process. The winners who constitute the greater portion of a particular community or a confession do not necessarily make up a political majority, but rather are a plurality within a particular community. The same applies to the losers. They are not a political minority but a minority within a particular community. This forces democracy and the notion of majority and minority out of their true contexts, deforms the principle of democracy, and enlists it in the service of the corrupt communal system.

Why isn’t there a national, all-Lebanese party, either in the opposition or in government? Lebanon is a pluralistic society. Until now the main political actors have been the religious communities and their leaders, sometimes imposed leaders. It is a patriarchal society; these intermediate groupings still play an important role. Yet at times, we were able to develop secular, all-Lebanese parties — the Communist Party, the National Syrian Socialist Party and the Baath. But what’s more important is that we had all-Lebanese coalitions. These were basically parliamentary blocs, but they had a political, popular base. We ceased to have this after 1982, and it is a problem that we are facing now. Others and myself are trying to develop a new front for democratic change, comprising secular as well as Islamic democratic forces — we can’t collaborate with undemocratic Islamic forces — but we are ready to collaborate with those democratic Islamic forces that are active in Lebanon now. However, the most important weapon to be used in this battle is to [restructure the parliament] and develop our electoral law. (Issam Naaman)

How the Monarchy Engineered the 1997 Moroccan Elections

Morocco’s goverment is now led by a socialist prime minister, Aberrahman El Youssoufi. All of the former opposition parties are taking part in his cabinet. We are entering an “era of change” following a constitutional referendum in 1996, local and national legislative elections in 1997 and professional and regional elections [the latter bodies indirectly elect the upper house of parliament]. Democracy means that the legitimacy of power arises from the ballot box. Can we say this is now true of Morocco, after all these elections resulted in a cabinet headed by a socialist who was formerly in the opposition? In the past, the specialists have generally agreed that the real power in Morocco comes from the top — the monarchy — and that the elections are systematically manipulated. Are things changing? The answer proposed here is a paradox: the fact is not only that the source of power hasn’t changed, but also that “the era of change” has been initiated by the same manipulations we experienced in previous polls. (Sion Assidon)

Elections in Morocco: Reality and Perspectives through the Strategies of the USFP

Morocco’s experience with elections and democratic aspirations is one of a kind. A host of laws, the most prominent of which is the constitution itself, recognize the need for honest elections and penalize whomever contemplates violating them. Morocco also adopted pluralism and the prohibition of the single-party system at an early stage. At the same time, however, we have noticed that unwritten instructions issued by the public authorities are much stronger than written laws, that the courts do not really play any decisive role in punishing those who manipulate voters’ will, and that the single-party system, comprised of public officials who belong to the ministry of the interior and its clients, actually exists in a concealed manner. This party has many names and forms, and enjoys the upper hand in shaping the final results of any elections. (Mohamed Karam)

Elections, Election Laws and Self-Determination at the Grassroots Level in Palestine

We could ask ourselves, despite the naiveté of the question, about the potential role of elections, the winners of which are known in advance, and whose immediate results are not at all affected by the electoral process. Would such elections be a waste of time, effort and money? Are they just some sort of social event? Or are there certain issues, other than choosing representatives, which emerge from elections and are related to them? The answer is definitely affirmative. Elections are not just a means for choosing representatives of the peopel to take decisions on their behalf or lead them according to a stable and established political system; they can also be the means to build a political system or to restructure and evaluate it. (Mudar Kassis)

Strategies of the Opposition in Local Elections: Egypt

The hegemonic authority of the executive power has seized all state institutions and apparatuses, including legislative power…. This is a result of the legalization of most of the practices of the security apparatus through the infamous “emergency” laws that restrict citizens’ rights and freedoms, laws that directly affect their political rights. This situation has taken away any hope citizens may have had of effecting change by means of the ballot box or of the entire electoral process. We can indeed assert that the corruption of the political climate and the despotic nature of the state in Egypt have been, to one degree or another, factors contributing to and benefiting the opposition parties. These factors have helped them hang their failures, corruption and sharp internal disputes on the peg of that other corruption: governmental despotism. Therefore, as stated above, a number of parties have been content with publishing their newspapers and letting their leaders take political positions as members in the Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council), without once condemning this corrupt and repressive climate. On the contrary, a number of them have expressed total support for the government and the head of state. This, of course, contradicts the very reason for which they were founded. Citizens expect that candidates to the Majlis al-Sha‘b (Peoples’ Assembly) will provide local services, especially in poor and popular districts. This is due to the lack of numerous facilities and services in these districts and quarters, termed “the gloomy districts.” That expectation is accompanied by a disinterest in the true role of this legislative body. One reason for this is the citizens’ belief that members of the Majlis al-Sha’b can do no better. (Gamal ‘Abdel ‘Aziz)

“A View From Egypt”

In Egypt in 1990, some parties, most prominently the Wafd, boycotted the election. These parties had made a condition of their participation the government’s guarantee of the honesty of the elections. Most importantly, they demanded that the government allow independent judicial supervision of the elections. This would require extending the elections over several days — because of insufficient number of judges — but the Egyptian constitution does not prohibit this. The elections in Sudan under Gen. Suwar al-Dhahab [in the mid-1980s] took place over eleven days. This was a good example; after these elections, he surrendered authority and left. Most of the parties who participated in the boycott are new. Their ordinary members come from all walks of life, but they join these parties to pursue personal interests, not out of principles or beliefs. So when the party leaders decided to boycott, some of these individuals left the parties and entered the elections as independents. These resignations continued for some time and threatened the parties with weakness. This is what led all the parties in 1995 to reverse their stance and enter the elections, regardless of the lack of government guarantees about the cleanliness of the elections. So the boycott failed, because the government does not care if the parties boycott. It only cares that it maintains the upper hand in the process, and it absolutely rejects the principle of rotating authority. (Kamel Khaled)

How to cite this article:

Kamal Khaled, Gamal Abdel Aziz, Mudar Kassis, Mohamed Karam, Sion Assidon, Issam Naaman, Hani Hourani "Perspectives on Elections from the Arab World," Middle East Report 209 (Winter 1998).

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