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October 12, 2012
The eyes of the world are fixated on the upcoming presidential and congressional elections in the United States. However, those are not the only elections whose outcome will have reverberations across the Middle East. Across the region, momentous, and arguably even more consequential, elections have already taken place in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and other countries. Just this week three more national elections—in Israel, Jordan and Kuwait—and at least one important local election—in the West Bank—have been scheduled to take place in the coming weeks and months.
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s call for early elections caught some by surprise, especially given his adroit handling of a government crisis during the summer, where he was able to save his parliamentary majority only via last minute negotiations. This time, however, there is no going back, and the new elections for the Israeli Knesset are due to take place around January of this coming year. The call for early elections has left some scratching their heads, but the three major political blocks—Likud, a center-left coalition led by Labor and Kadima members, and Israeli Arabs—have sprung into action.
At least one observer, Yedioth Ahronoth’s Hagai Segal, expressed his dismay at what he considered a premature move, asking aloud what some were thinking: “why call early elections? For no reason at all. The past few months have not seen any significant change that warrants an early vote. There is no new peace plan that demands an urgent referendum, and there have not been any major developments with regards to other internal issues either. What was is what is. The only significant development during Netanyahu's tenure is the 'danger' that the government will actually complete a full term for the first time in decades....Over the summer Netanyahu prevented the Knesset's dissolution at the last moment. But now it appears that he can't. Like the rest of the party leaders, he will march with his head held high towards unnecessary elections.”
Meanwhile, for Israel’s famously fractious political system this meant only one thing: a scramble for supporters and across-party alliances. Netanyahu, in an effort to improve Likud’s chances in the general elections, has initiated a series of moves that, according to Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman, are aimed at easing the “Likud primary election fight…. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is considering changing the rules inside his Likud party in order to enable more of the party’s current ministers and MKs to make the next Knesset, sources close to Netanyahu said Wednesday....The Likud Central Committee will meet next Wednesday at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds for a convention that will decide the date for the Likud primary and what changes should be made to the system for deciding the party’s candidates. Netanyahu's associates said he may decide to start the reserved slots later on the list or to have fewer regions and sectors to make it easier for ministers and MKs to get reelected.”
In a separate report, Hoffman reported on activities on the other side of the aisle that would have important consequences for the future of the two-state solution negotiations: “Efforts to form a ‘Center-Left mega-party’ [are gaining] steam…. Netanyahu’s political opponents reported progress Wednesday in their efforts to build a ‘Center-Left mega-party’ that could pose a serious challenge to him in the upcoming general election....Holding the election so soon forces Netanyahu’s opponents to expedite their attempts to unite the Center- Left camp. Former justice minister Haim Ramon and Kadima faction chairwoman Dalia Itzik, who were among Kadima’s founders, have spearheaded the effort....Ramon’s first preference is for former prime minister Ehud Olmert to lead the mega-party, which would bring together former Kadima head Tzipi Livni, current Kadima MKs and other well-known figures on the Left. He would also want Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid’s party to join.”
Also taking place on Wednesday were a series of meetings between Arab parties that were considering the possibility of uniting “under one ticket for election…. Arab political parties spent time regrouping …, trying to figure out how they would shape their message and increase voter participation.MK Taleb a-Sanaa, from the UAL-Ta’al party, is proposing that all the Arab parties unite under one ticket, in part as a buffer to the ‘extreme right-wing control’ that now has a hold on the Knesset.... In addition to his party, which currently holds four Knesset seats, the Arab parties in the Knesset include Hadash, a Communist party holding four seats, and Balad, or the National Democratic Assembly.”
On the other side of the border, Palestinians in the West Bank were preparing for municipal elections in the West Bank—the first ones since 2006 — the timing of which, Jordan Times’ Daoud Kuttab argues, helps Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad: “Election fever has hit most Palestinian cities....[But] the rejection of the government in Gaza and of the Hamas supporters means that the elections are being held only in most West Bank cities and without the participation of Hamas candidates. Some Islamists are participating as independent candidates....Holding elections at this politically uncertain time is a boost for the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who seems to have survived last month’s protests and will most likely survive the expected departure of the Palestinian leader. The underlying meaning of the potential success of the local elections is that economic and local issues are taking precedence over national and political issues.”
Continued unrest in Jordan has forced the hand of King Abdullah, who has dissolved the parliament and called new elections. The opposition, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, has vowed to boycott if the new government does not meet its demands: “Figures from across Jordan’s political spectrum welcomed on Wednesday the appointment of Abdullah Ensour as prime minister as a ‘positive step,’ cautioning that the veteran lawmaker’s ability to save the reform process will hinge upon his government’s action plan. Leftists, Islamists and independents said although they were ‘encouraged’ by the King’s selection of the long-time political maverick, they remained sceptical of Ensour’s ability to retain his independent reformist ways while at the Prime Ministry. The Muslim Brotherhood — Jordan’s largest political group — says that although it has long respected Ensour’s pro-reform track record, its cordial relations with the incoming premier will not necessarily translate into improved ties with authorities….The Islamist movement says its ability to enter a dialogue over its boycott of upcoming elections will depend on whether Ensour ‘has the final say’ in the decision-making process.”
Finally, in Kuwait the opposition has taken to the streets to protest against emergency decrees that would change the electoral laws governing the upcoming elections in the country: “Opposition forces and their supporters held a mass gathering at the diwaniya of former MP Salam Al-Namlan in objection to emergency decrees, especially any that change the electoral system before the upcoming parliament elections....Meanwhile, liberal pro-government former MP Ali Al-Rashid criticized the opposition’s joint statement on Tuesday, warning that amendment to the electoral law to impact poll results could destabilize Kuwait and undermine relations with the ruling family....The Kuwaiti opposition said Wednesday it will boycott the forthcoming general polls and stage Arab Spring-like protests if the ruler of the Gulf state amended the controversial electoral law.”
The protests and the chaos surrounding the upcoming elections have caused some in the country to question the utility of a democratic system, given what Kuwait Times’ Aziza Al Mufarrej sees as repeatedly bad choices made by people and their leaders: “We keep hearing every now and then that some ruling family members are convinced that ushering in democracy was a strategic mistake that they should not have made. If, for the sake of argument, we assume that this opinion of the sheikhs is true, and I am not among those who say so, we will find that such an opinion has some credibility. The way Kuwait is reeling under problems is linked to parliament, and what we have been going through for years, is the best evidence of that....Democracy by itself is a sublime idea, a beautiful way of life that everyone should follow because it includes freedom and respect for the individual. The mistakes in the democratic practice creep in due to one of the three factors – people, MPs or the authority. In Kuwait, all three are the reason why we are facing such problems.”
Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.