The Gap Between Elections and Change

The Gap Between Elections and Change

 Arab countries that should have very lively political cultures — Jordan, Bahrain and Egypt — have either just held parliamentary elections or will do so later this month. Having just witnessed the aftermath of the Jordanian vote in Amman, this strikes me as a timely moment to pause and assess precisely the positive and negative elements of these exercises.

The good news is that most Arab citizens can organize themselves politically and regularly contest parliamentary seats, nominate themselves as candidates, engage in open public debates about the issues they deem important, and express their grievances and satisfactions with their political systems or leaders. The elected parliaments to a very limited extent can also try to hold the executive branch of government accountable through actions like voting on national budgets and giving the cabinet ministers a vote of confidence.

These are useful and desirable actions that are the right of any citizen, in any form of governance system. Limited as these powers may be, and constricted as their impact on state policies are in reality, nevertheless these are important foundational elements of accountable and pluralistic governance. The single most important one is the right to freedom of expression. Citizens who have the ability to express their concerns, grievances or complaints, and to make known what they expect from their government officials, provide the essential starting point and needed checks for good governance. Only by making their views known can citizens hope to hold accountable those who actually make the decisions of state, whether tax and subsidies rules, budgetary allocations, or foreign policy alignments.

The recent elections in Jordan and Bahrain and the upcoming vote in Egypt later this month ultimately affirm the cardinal rule of contemporary Arab political culture: Arab democratic practices and institutions – parliaments, elections, political parties – are alive and kicking, but there continues to be a deep and chronic gap between the phenomenon of citizens who vote, and the policies of governments that seem never to change. The positive aspects of holding elections are offset by the negative fact that the results of the elections tend to have no impact on the conduct of government policies, in the domestic or foreign realms. Voting thus becomes a useful exercise in freedom of association and expression, but not an element in the peaceful rotation of power among diverse political groups who have different ideological policies that they wish to implement.

Many reasons explain why Arab parliaments have so little power, including appointed upper houses that check their influence, professionally gerrymandered electoral districts that guarantee a pro-government conservative majority, government-controlled electoral laws and media systems that limit the eligibility and impact of opposition candidates, and, it is commonly alleged, ballot box stuffing and other vote rigging methods employed by incumbent elites. Despite these structural biases in favor of pro-government majorities, Islamist, progressive, independent and nationalist opposition groups nevertheless regularly take part in elections. All those who participate in such elections — candidates and voters alike — know that they are players in a drama that operates within fixed boundaries, and they do not exaggerate the real significance and impact of what they are doing.

An interesting issue is always whether the main national opposition group will take part or not. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood fields its candidates as independents or under the guise of other legal parties because it is banned as a political group, and in the 2005 voting it still won 20 percent of parliament. Thousands of its members have been imprisoned, tried or harassed, and many others prohibited from standing as candidates, yet it is still contesting the elections again later this month. The Islamist main opposition groups in Jordan and Bahrain, on the other hand, boycotted the elections. In the end, however, it makes little difference if the opposition forces play the game or boycott the entire process. The result is always predictable, with opposition groups holding 10-20 percent of seats at most, and having zero impact on the actual formulation of state policies.

So what should we make of Arab parliamentary elections? They seem important for three reasons: they reveal that ruling power elites and their foreign supporters remain hesitant to allow the full force of Arab public opinion to assert itself; they provide useful means of gauging public sentiments on the important issues of the day; and, they provide a limited arena in which people learn to contest power peacefully, make deals with other groups, and appeal for the votes of their fellow citizens — techniques that will be useful one day when some Arab country decides to relax, trust its people, and move more credibly into the realm of genuinely accountable and representative governance. Until then, we have this intriguing recurring spectacle of Arab parliamentary elections that generate much commotion and some reshuffling of faces and seats, but never any actual changes in political life or national policies.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.