POMED Notes: “Elections and Politics in North Africa”
On Monday, February 11 the Elliot School of International Affairs’ Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University hosted a panel discussion entitled “Elections and Politics in North Africa.” The panel featured Ellen Lust, Associate Professor of Political Science at Yale University, Lindsay Benstead, Professor of Political Science at Portland State University and Matthew Buehler, Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Texas-Austin, and was moderated by Marc Lynch, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs.
For full event notes continue reading, or click here for the PDF.
Marc Lynch opened the panel discussion by reminding the audience of the often-lost conversation of North Africa in the broader discourse on Middle Eastern politics and hoped that this panel discussion would help restore conversation. He then proceeded to briefly introduce the panelists and outlined their areas of research.
Linday Benstead began the discussion by speaking on the timeliness of the Tunisian government’s current turmoil and reinforced the point that the transitions occurring in the Middle East and North Africa will be a long process. Benstead’s remarks focused on a series of surveying she undertook in Tunisia and Egypt in October and November of 2012 and sought to debunk three commonly-held “myths”. The first was that the transitions are hotly-contested competition between the Islamist and secular camps, and that, in fact, polling showed low support among voters for the idea of religion institutionalized in government. The second myth her data dispelled was that Islamist parties won in the polls because voters did not embrace democracy. On the contrary, Benstead’s data suggests that Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia obtained parliamentary majorities because their capacity and internal organization were superior to secularists’. Finally, Benstead’s data debunked the notion that Islamists, once voted into power, would lose support in subsequent elections in competition with other parties, and instead that polling indicated increased voter support for Islamists. On the strength of Tunisia’s electoral governance, Benstead cited the country’s strong constituent assembly and labor movement compared to Egypt’s relatively weak electoral institutions.
Matthew Buehler spoke on the success of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) in Morocco in the wake of the “Arab Spring” uprisings. Like the Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia, Morocco’s PJD “rode the wave of discontent” among voters and, although less violent than in other countries, was a mediating force in the debate on constitutional reforms enacted in 2011. Citing the PJD’s commanding majority in the 2011 parliamentary elections, it was able to come to power in a coalition government with two communist and independent socialist parties. On whether the PJD’s inclusion in the government would mean its cooptation by secular opposition forces, Buehler stated that only time would tell, but that the party’s successes in reaching into rural districts where it has traditionally faired worse may be a sign of its broadening appeal among the electorate. Furthermore, the expansion of the palace’s “shadow government” – enclaves within government the monarchy still controls – will create new “turf” battles within the bureaucracy that the PJD must navigate.
Ellen Lust spoke on the need to distinguish between elections and the long-term reforms voters hope to accomplish by going to the polls and in so doing disaggregate what is significant in election results. Citing the example of Jordan’s recent elections, Lust pointed to the fact that high electoral turnout was more important than whether “party A or party B would return” to power, and concluded that the stakes of each election were considerably different in Tunisia and Egypt where ideological cleavages between voters played an important role in why voters went to the polls. In her opinion, these ideological cleavages are more linked to social movements than to particular parties, that competing views of society determined how one cast their ballot, and that they showcased more a desire to transform society more broadly than simply reforming the political arena.