Middle East This Week: February 14, 2023

February 14, 2023

A weekly review of news and analysis of elections in the greater Middle East and North Africa, usually posted on Tuesdays and occasionally updated throughout the week.

Ruins of the ancient city of Perrhe, located near Adiyaman, one of the cities hardest hit by the earthquake in Turkey. Turkey’s upcoming elections could be postponed following the earthquake. Photo credit: Wikimedia/Klearchos Kapoutsis (CC BY 2.0)

Ongoing Middle East Elections

Lebanon Indirect Presidential Election (by parliament): Continuing

Lebanon’s fractious parliament is in the process of selecting a president. As part of Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system, the president is always a Maronite Christian (and conversely, a Sunni serves as prime minister and a Shi’ite as speaker of the parliament). 

The last parliamentary elections took place in May 2022 in the context of a political and economic crisis exacerbated by the August 2020 explosion in the port of Beirut. In those elections, Hezbollah and its allies lost their majority in parliament, and a number of independents won seats. 

The fragmented parliament has not been able to pick a new president, leaving a vacuum following the end of Michel Aoun’s term in October 2022. Aoun was a strong ally of Hezbollah. Michel Moawad, an anti-Hezbollah candidate, has won the most votes on several ballots, but not a majority. Voting will continue until someone can break the stalemate. 

As a result of not having a president, Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government is operating in a caretaker capacity, and it is exacerbating Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis, with the currency hitting new record lows.

Patricia Karam, Arab Center Washington DC (February 14, 2023): Lebanon’s New Opposition MPs Must Work Together for Political Change

Jamie Prentis, The National UAE (February 14, 2023): Lebanese presidential candidate Michel Moawad on putting ego aside to prevent ‘chaos’

Mohanad Hage Ali, Qantara.de (February 13, 2023): A harried Hezbollah

Khaldoun AbouAssi, Lamia Moubayed, and Deborah Lee Trent, Foreign Policy (February 13, 2023): How Lebanon Can Unlock Its Oil and Gas Wealth: A new maritime deal with Israel could be an economic lifeline for Lebanon—if the government in Beirut can get its act together.

Upcoming Middle East Elections

Turkey General Elections: May 14, 2023

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power since 2003, and although the party initially ran on a reformist platform, it has become increasingly authoritarian. A 2017 constitutional change, with passed very narrowly in a referendum, replaced the parliamentary system with a presidential system, and gave the presidency new powers.

While Turkey remains a member of NATO, it has in recent years moved closer to Russia and other authoritarian countries.

An earthquake ravaged the Turkey-Syria borer on February 6, striking Gaziantep province and killing more than 30,000 people and injuring tens of thousands. 

In addition to the humanitarian disaster, the earthquake complicates Turkish politics. Erdogan allies have floated the idea of delaying the elections. As Henri J. Barkey at CFR notes: “It is difficult to imagine that the region can recover sufficiently to conduct elections. It is not just the destruction of property and loss of life that is challenging, but also the fact that many residents are likely to disperse throughout Turkey in search of shelter with family and friends. Of the four provinces afflicted—Adiyaman, Gaziantep, Hatay, and Kahramanmaras—only in Hatay did Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) not win a majority of the votes in the 2018 parliamentary elections. (It was still the number one party.) These are his votes to lose in the next contest.”

Raziye Akkoc, AFP (February 13, 2023): Quake Stalls Election Campaign Of Turkey’s Splintered Opposition

Henri J. Barkey, Council on Foreign Relations (February 13, 2023): Massive Earthquake Could Reshape Turkish and Syrian Politics

James Ryan, Foreign Policy Research Institute (February 10, 2023): Devastating Earthquakes in Turkey Could Fundamentally Alter the Political Landscape

Pakistan General Elections: October 12, 2023 (due – snap elections possible and increasingly likely)

Following Pakistan’s turbulent 2018 general election, former cricket star Imran Khan – seen as the military’s preferred candidate – became prime minister when his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won the most seats. However, Khan was ousted in an April 2022 vote of no confidence and former opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif became prime minister. Since then, Khan has sought to force earlier elections as his popularity continues to rise in opinion polls.

This is all taking place in the context of an economic crisis, with soaring prices and rolling blackouts. As a result, the government risks losing the next elections. But delaying the election also creates challenges, given how angry voters are. 

Arif Rafiq observes: “There is little appetite to live in a country where upward mobility and political rights are denied by the civilian-military elite. Many Pakistanis are now voting with their feet. Over 800,000 Pakistanis left the country to work abroad last year, surpassing pre-pandemic levels. According to a Gallup Pakistan survey, over fifty percent of Pakistanis with a university degree would like to leave the country.”

Reema Sharma, Zee News (February 14, 2023): Pakistan Economic Crisis: Milk Prices Zoom Past 210 per litre, Rates of Chicken and Meat Increase Too

Arif Rafiq, Australian Institute of International affairs (February 8, 2023): In a Stalemate with Pakistan’s Rulers, Imran Khan’s Party Faces an Institutional Crackdown

Palestinian Authority General Elections: Long Overdue

The Palestinian Authority is long overdue to hold general elections. President Mahmoud Abbas is currently in year 18 of a four-year term. Similarly, the last Legislative Council elections took place in 2006. However, local elections did take place in 2021 and 2022.

I24 News (February 14, 2023): France looking for successor to PA head Mahmoud Abbas – report

Past Middle East Elections

Tunisia Legislative Runoffs: January 29, 2023

Tunisia began transitioning to democracy in 2011, amid the Arab Spring protests, and in 2019, held the third national elections since the fall of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  Political outsider and populist Kais Saied won the presidency. The results indicated a rejection of the main political parties and post-Ben Ali political ideologies (Islamism and secular liberalism). However, Saied took the country down an authoritarian path and took actions that his opponents said subvert democracy. As a result, protests have been taking place. 

Angus Mcdowall and Tarek Amara, Reuters (February 14, 2023): Analysis: Tunisia arrests raise opposition fears of wider crackdown

Ambassador Mark Green, Wilson Center (February 7, 2023): Mere 11 Percent Turn Out for Tunisia’s Recent Parliamentary Elections

Israel Snap Parliamentary Elections: November 1, 2022

Israel has held five sets of general elections over the past four years. The most recent returned Bibi Netanyahu to power, this time heading what has been called the country’s most right-wing government to date.

Israeli is currently experiencing some of the biggest protests in its history, some involving 100,000 people, sparked by Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the judiciary. Critics of the plan say that it would remove a key set of checks and balances in policymaking and give whoever has the majority in parliament too much power, while proponents say that the judiciary currently has too much of a de facto veto over policy and reforms are necessary. But even some who support reforms take issue with the fact that this is being done so quickly, without taking the time to build consensus. President Yitzhak Herzog made a rare statement warning of a potential constitutional collapse.

Shira Rubin and Miriam Berger, Washington Post (February 14, 2023): Why Israel’s planned overhaul of the judiciary is tearing the country apart

Dennis Ross and David Mahovsky, The Hill (February 14, 2023): Israel shouldn’t cherry-pick the American model in its judicial debate

Amichai Cohen and Yuval Shany, Lawfare (February 14, 2023): The New Israeli Government’s “Constitutional Law Reforms”: Why now? What do they mean? And what will happen next?

AP (February 12, 2023): Israel’s president urges Netanyahu to delay legal overhaul

Barak Ravid, Axios (February 12, 2023): Israeli president: “Powder keg about to explode” over judicial overhaul plan

Iran Presidential Election: June 18, 2021

Iran is a key geopolitical player in the region, exerting influence on politicians in numerous countries, routinely stoking sectarian tensions, and engaging in military aggression. To be clear, Saudi Arabia and the Sunni powers against whom Iran is fighting also do all these things. 

Key questions regarding these protests include: Will they lead to the collapse of the theocratic regime? If so, how will that alter Iran’s foreign policy? And if they don’t lead to the regime’s collapse, will that lead to an even more aggressive foreign policy?

This wave of protests – which lasted about five months – has stopped/been crushed by a brutal crackdown. But grievances remain, and it is unclear whether protests will start back up.

Scott Simon and Mary Louise Kelly, NPR (February 11, 2023): Iranians are protesting their government on the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution

Al Jazeera (February 11, 2023): Iran’s Raisi takes aim at ‘enemies’ on revolution anniversary: Iran’s president said criticism over human and women’s rights should be aimed at the West and not Iran.

Reuters (February 11, 2023): Germany sees increase in Iranian spying since protests, Welt am Sonntag reports

NPR (February 10, 2023): Iran’s supreme leader pledges to pardon thousands of jailed protesters

Bahrain General Elections: November 12, 2022

AP (February 14, 2023): Hackers target Bahrain airport, news sites to mark uprising

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