Middle East This Week: February 21, 2023

February 21, 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 Pharwala Fort in Punjab, Pakistan. Photo credit: Wikimedia/Khalid Mahmood (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

Andrea López-Tomàs, The Media Line (February 20, 2023): Lebanese lawmakers from change bloc press parliament to elect president

James J. Zogby, The Arab Weekly (February 17, 2023): Reformists trying to force Lebanon’s parliament to act

Kareem Chehayeb, AP (February 16, 2023): Protesters in Beirut smash banks as Lebanese pound spirals

Upcoming Middle East Elections

Pakistan, Provincial Elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa: April 9, 2023 (declared unilaterally by president but opposed by election commission), followed by General Elections: October 12, 2023 (early elections possible)

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.”

President Arif Alvi, who is a leader of Khan’s PTI party, sparked yet another political crisis by announcing April 9 elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, going around the country’s election commission. 

Khan also announced a “Jail Bharo Tehreek’ [fill the jail movement]” action by which PTI members voluntarily get arrested to force early elections. 

Abid Hussain, Al Jazeera (February 21, 2023): Pakistan’s president slammed for declaring poll date in provinces: Arif Alvi’s unilateral decision to announce April 9 elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa triggers a new controversy.

Ayaz Gul, Voice of America (February 17, 2023): Former Pakistani PM Khan Announces Push for Elections

Ismail Dilawar, Bloomberg (February 15, 2023): Imran Khan’s Party to Court Arrest in Push For Early 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.”

Sune Engel Rasmussen and Daniella Cheslow, Reuters (February 21, 2023): Six killed after fresh earthquake hits Turkey-Syria border

John Hudson, Washington Post (February 19, 2023): Blinken tours Turkey earthquake zone, unveils $100 million more in aid

Pierre Ayad and Taha Ouda Oglo, AFP (February 16, 2023 – interview): ‘A political quake as well’: Will Turkey’s calamity rattle Erdogan’s rule?

Jorgelina do Rosario, Reuters (February 16, 2023): Turkey earthquake could result in loss of up to 1% of country’s GDP in 2023

Pierre Boussel, Carnegie Endowment (February 16, 2023): The Turkish Elections and Syria’s Future

AP (February 16, 2023): NATO chief urges Turkey to let Nordic pair join quickly

Wall Street Journal (February 15, 2023): Turkey Faces Acute Homelessness Crisis After Earthquakes: At least two million Turks have lost their homes, experts say

Ece Toksabay and Ezgi Erkoyun, Reuters (February 15, 2023): Turkey arrests 78 over earthquake social media posts

Libya Presidential and Parliamentary Elections: Overdue

Libya’s general elections are long overdue amid several crises.

AFP (February 19, 2023): AU says to organise Libya reconciliation conference

Africanews (February 18, 2023): Libya marks twelve years anniversary of the revolution that ousted Moammar Gadhafi

Algeria Presidential Election: December 2024 (due)

Mass protests in 2019 ended the 20-year rule of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, but former PM Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who was close to Bouteflika, won the subsequent presidential election. Protesters from the Hirak movement have pushed for greater political reform, but the country’s traditional power centers have largely held.

BBC (February 21, 2023): Algeria jails journalist Ihsane el-Kadi as old guard asserts power

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. 

Ahmed Ghiloufi, African Arguments (February 20, 2023): A Trojan Horse in Carthage: How did Kais Saied, a retired law professor, become a tyrant? Answer: with the support of the pro-democracy movement he now oppresses

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.

Laurie Kellman and Ilan Ben Zion, AP (February 20, 2023): Israeli government advances judicial overhaul despite uproar

Hadas Gold, Richard Allen Greene, Mia Alberti and Amir Tal, CNN (February 20, 2023): Protests across Israel as Netanyahu’s government introduces bill to weaken courts

Middle East Elections Coming Up in 2023

Turkey and Pakistan are due to hold elections that determine who runs the government. In addition, long-overdue elections in the Palestinian Authority and Libya could take place in 2023, but don’t hold your breath.

Lebanon Indirect Presidential Election (by parliament): continues in February 2023

Pakistan, Provincial Elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa: April 9, 2023 (declared unilaterally by president but opposed by election commission)

Turkey Presidential and Legislative Elections: May 14, 2023

Lebanon Local Elections: May 31, 2023 (postponed from 2022 – additional delays possible)

Tunisia Local Elections: May 2023 (due)

Kurdistan (Iraq) Presidential and Parliamentary Elections: September 2023 (due – delayed from 2022)

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

Israel Local Elections: October 2023 (due)

Oman Consultative Assembly Elections (advisory body with limited power): October 2023 (due)

United Arab Emirates Federal National Council Elections (indirect elections, advisory body with limited powers): October 2023 (due)

Iraq Regional Elections: December 2023 (due)

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