Middle East This Week: February 28, 2023

February 28, 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.The skyline of Ankara, Turkey. Photo credit: Wikimedia/Boubacar Amadou Cisse (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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.

Michael Young, The National UAE (February 28, 2023): Why is it so difficult for Lebanon to elect its next president?

Najia Houssari, Arab News (February 27, 2023): Election of a new president remains a priority, Lebanon’s caretaker PM tells cabinet

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.”

Soner Cagaptay, Foreign Affairs (March 1, 2023): Turkey’s Disaster—and Erdogan’s: How the Earthquake Could Spell the End of His Rule

Nicolas Camut, Politico (February 27, 2023): Erdoğan says sorry for earthquake rescue delays: Turkish president has come under heavy criticism from the opposition.

Klaus Wölfer, GIS (February 23, 2023): As Turkey begins its second century, uncertainty looms

Orhan Coskun, Reuters (February 22, 2023): Erdogan leaning towards holding Turkish elections in June -sources

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 (March 1, 2023): Pakistan top court orders polls in two provinces within 90 days: Supreme Court says elections for provincial assemblies in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa must be held within three months.

Ismail Dilawar and Kamran Haider, Bloomberg (February 28, 2023): Pakistan’s Imran Khan May be Arrested After Court Orders Warrant

PTI (February 28, 2023): Around 500 workers and leaders of Imran Khan’s party arrested as part of ‘Jail Bharo Tehreek’ protest in Punjab province

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

Kurdistan is officially part of Iraq but largely operates as a de facto independent entity. 

Chenar Chalak at Rudaw notes: “The Kurdistan Region’s ruling parties, the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have been at loggerheads in recent months over the Region’s parliamentary elections, the transparency of the oil and local income of the provinces under their influence, and the assassination of a former PUK colonel in Erbil in October.”

Kurdistan 24 (February 28, 2023): KDP, PUK reach an agreement to hold elections this year

Iraq Regional Elections: December 2023 (due)

The National UAE (February 28, 2023): Iraqis protest against push to return to voting system that benefits large parties

Qassim Abdul-Zahra, AP (February 27, 2023): Hundreds protest new proposed election law in Baghdad

Libya Presidential and Parliamentary Elections: Overdue but proposed for 2023

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

Michael Weissenstein, AP (February 27, 2023): UN will struggle to unify Libya with elections this year

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.

Thomas O’Reilly, The European Conservative (February 27, 2023): EU-Algeria Relations Continue Despite Arrest of NGO Analyst

Margarita Arredondas, Atalayar (February 24, 2023): Algeria faces a new wave of repression 4 years after Hirak

Egypt Elections: 2025 (due)

Hamza Hendawi, The National UAE (February 2023): Egypt’s national dialogue to begin after Ramadan, officials say

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. 

Fadil Aliriza, Middle East Institute (February 28, 2023): Democratic pessimism in Tunisia

Lina Khatib, World Politics Review (February 28, 2023): In Tunisia, Criticizing Saied Is Now a Crime

Tharwa Boulifi, Foreign Policy (February 24, 2023): Young Tunisians Don’t Trust Kais Saied Anymore: Those who once supported the president and his coup are starting to doubt his ability to rescue the country amid an economic crisis

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.

Natasha Turak, CBNC (February 28, 2023): ‘Huge uncertainty’ for investors and economy as Israel’s government pushes for controversial reforms

AP (February 28, 2023): Ultranationalist ally of Netanyahu quits as deputy minister in Israeli government

Andrew England and James Shotter, Financial Times (February 28, 2023): The angry divide in Israel over the rule of law and religion

Hadas Gold, CNN (February 27, 2023): Netanyahu’s crises mount as Israeli-Palestinian tensions ratchet up

Amir Tal and Hadas Gold, CNN (February 26, 2023): About 160,000 people protest against Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv

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.

Danielle Pletka, Foreign Policy (February 28, 2023): Corruption Is the Iranian Regime’s Achilles’ Heel

Patrick Wintour, The Guardian (February 27, 2023): Iran protests are at do-or-die moment, says son of former shah

Reuters (February 24, 2023): Renewed protests in Iran’s restive southeast, currency at new low

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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