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Little Democratic Reform Expected from Arab Elections

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Political analysts in the Arab world are praising the recently completed Palestinian elections as a positive example of how free and fair democratic elections can be held in the region. But when it comes to elections scheduled to be held this year in Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, the same analysts say those elections will not likely lead to any significant democratic reform.

According to the head of the Asian Studies department at Cairo University, Mohammed el-Sayed Selim, the Palestinian elections will have been what he called the lone bright spot among all the elections scheduled to be held in the Arab world this year.

"The Palestinian elections have created a model in the Arab world that Arabs, Palestinians can hold competitive elections in a fair, peaceful way and reach a fair conclusion," he said. "However, at a higher level of analysis, still many Arab regimes are trying to pursue a piecemeal approach, which is not congruent with the expectations of the Arab masses. Arab masses would like to have fair elections, competitive elections. This is not what we see in other parts of the Arab world, with the exception of Palestinian case."

Mr. Selim, who is also a guest lecturer at Kuwait University, says few believe the elections in Iraq, scheduled for January 30, will do anything to promote political change in the rest of the Arab world.

The head of the political science department at Lebanese-American University in Beirut, Sami Baroudi, says he agrees. Mr. Baroudi says the continued presence of coalition forces in Iraq will cause most Arabs to discount the reliability of the election.

"The Iraqi election, I think people are still in doubt it will take place or not," he said. "However, if it takes place, I think there will be some people who are questioning how honest you can have an election with the presence of the occupation."

The head of the political science department at Cairo University, Hassan Nafae, says the presence of U.S.-led forces raises questions about what the Iraqi election will accomplish.

"The election under occupation is not a real election," he said. "It is an election under emergency circumstances. This will not lead to, I believe, a real democracy in Iraq."

Iraqis are to choose 275 members of a national assembly who are to debate and approve a new constitution. There will also be elections to 18 provincial assemblies and the autonomous Kurdish parliament in the north.

In September, Egyptians will go to the polls to decide whether President Hosni Mubarak, who has held the office since 1981, will get another term in office. According to former Egyptian ambassador and expert on Arab affairs, Abdullah al-Ashaal, the public in Egypt is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo.

"The people on the streets are not satisfied with the performance of the government or the corruption prevailing everywhere. And President Mubarak cannot say that he has achieved many particular things in Egypt."

"Despite growing political restlessness on the streets of Egypt, Mr. Mubarak, who is running unopposed, is expected to easily win another six-year term in office," he said. "Analysts say Egypt will have to amend its constitution before free and fair elections can be held. But there is no strong political voice in Egypt calling for constitutional change.

In Saudi Arabia, the first-ever elections will be held later this year. Voters will choose among candidates in municipal elections. The head of the al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Jordan, Uraib el-Rantawi, says it remains unclear whether the local elections will lead to greater democracy throughout the kingdom.

"In Saudi Arabia it is a small step toward democratization, toward reforms," he said. "But, it is too early now to estimate or to imagine there is serious change in the internal situation in Saudi Arabia, or a serious democratization process in that country."

Mr. el-Rantawi notes that women will not be allowed to vote in the municipal elections. He also says the polling will be centrally controlled by the government. Consequently, Mr. el-Rantawi says the political impact of the elections in Saudi Arabia or on the rest of the region, will, at best, be very limited.

All the political analysts who spoke with VOA agreed that with the exception of the recent Palestinian election little, if any, meaningful democratic change is expected as the result of upcoming elections elsewhere in the Arab world.

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