A Year of Elections Shows the Middle East Is Not Immune to an Anti-Establishment Mood

A year of Middle East elections is coming to an end. This has been something of a bumper year for democracy in the region, with elections in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, which this week finally nominated a president and prime minister, and elections in Libya planned but postponed until next year. If there is one trend that can gleaned, one thread running through the tumult of messages, parties and policies across this year, it is that the Middle East is not immune to developments in democracies elsewhere.

The rise of anti-elite parties and personalities, across Europe and North America, is also replicated in the Middle East. Entrenched parties and personalities are being challenged, sometimes in small ways, sometimes on a bigger scale, but with the end result of a messy and tumultuous political picture across the republics of the region.

This moment of transition is, in some ways, positive, bringing new ideas into the political sphere; but coming so soon after the shocks of the Arab Spring and, in Iraq, the 2003 invasion, and with still explosive examples of uneven transitions in Syria and Yemen, the changes mean real uncertainty in countries too used to political certainties. The anti-establishment mood, while real, is also dangerous.

And it is everywhere. It was most pronounced in one of the first elections, in Tunisia, where the first municipal polls since the revolution gave more votes to independent candidates than to the two established parties. Had all the independents stood together as one party, it would have emerged as the single largest political entity.

But perhaps the most intriguing sign of the weakening of political parties was how, in both Turkey and Iraq, parties grouped together to contest the elections, rather than stand alone. In Turkey, which held a presidential and a parliamentary election at the same time, opponents of long-time leader Recep Tayyip Erodgan grouped together under one banner. Four opposition parties, including the Republican People’s Party, the party of Ataturk, came together. Equally telling was how Erdogan, apparently spooked by how parties to the right of his AKP were gaining traction, went into the presidential election in an alliance with two much smaller parties.

The same was true of Iraq, where not a single major contender stood alone as a political party, all going into the election as part of alliances. Even the Dawa party, which has given Iraq its last two prime ministers, went into the election as part of an alliance of four parties. And still the results were so confusing that they took four months of negotiations to resolve and form a government.

Elsewhere, the fracturing of the establishment continues. In Lebanon, where parties regularly combine into alliances, the picture was so mixed – partly under pressure from newer parties like the civil society alliance Kulluna Watani (All for the Nation) and partly as a response to shifting politics with the coming end of the Syrian civil war – there is still no government eight months on.

Everywhere major parties are being challenged, appear to fear going before the electorate alone, and certainly are not able to command the respect they once did. It was noticeable in Egypt’s election, which essentially served as a referendum on Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s first term in office, and where the incumbent president did not even stand for a party, and in Israel, where municipal elections functioned as a prelude to a presidential election next year.

It is the response to this anti-establishment mood that matters so much. And there is some evidence that politicians don’t appear to have grasped the scale of the discontent.

One measure of dissatisfaction is clear. Turnouts at this year’s elections have been low: in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Israel, turnout hovered around 50 percent. In Tunisia’s municipal elections it was worse, around 33 percent. (Only in Turkey was it high, around 87 percent.) One reason could be that electorates don’t view the elections as genuine events that could usher in change.

No election better sums this up than the most recent, in Iraqi Kurdistan. The two major parties of the region are still run along family lines. Challenged by smaller parties, neither won an outright majority. But when it came time to nominate a prime minister and president, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, headed by Masoud Barzani, nominated his son as prime minister and his nephew as president. No wonder so many didn’t bother voting.

Democracy requires more than mere elections. There needs to be a genuine contest of ideas. Even established democracies struggle with this. But countries that simply go through the motions of democracy, offering up the same ideas and even the same personalities, will rapidly find an electorate that does one of two things, neither of which the established parties will like: withdraw from the election, thereby weakening their mandate, or favor newer, insurgent parties.

A year of elections shows the republics of the region are offering their people the chance to vote. Now they must offer them the chance to change.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.