The Middle East Channel

Why new electoral rules matter

Why new electoral rules matter

As winter’s "days of rage" subside and turn into spring’s more "orderly" transitions, the choice of new electoral rules in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen will mark a crucial moment in their political trajectories. While changes to the laws that govern elections are often viewed as unimportant details, they could play a significant role in fostering or stifling democratic impulses. To begin, it serves us well to recall two instances when Arab regimes under duress used the guise of electoral reform to maintain control.

As Christopher Alexander briefly described, Tunisia’s autocracy faced its most serious challenge at the end of the 1980s but survived, in part, through electoral manipulation. After taking power in the wake of a political crisis, Ben Ali rewrote the electoral code in advance of legislative elections in 1989. The new system split the Islamist opposition over whether to participate and enticed elements of the secular opposition to compete in single party lists that were built around the ruling party’s patronage networks. These so-called reforms helped Ben Ali to control the parliament over the next two decades. 

In the case of Jordan, the monarchy regrouped after a series of economic crises in the late 1980s and neutered an assertive parliament by instituting the single non-transferable vote system before elections in 1993. The new law, which was issued by royal decree outside of the political process, dramatically curtailed the ability of Islamists and opposition parties to garner votes in a society dominated by kinship and personal relationships. The "one vote" provision has helped ensure pliant parliaments ever since, most notably after last November’s elections when a new "sub-district" system was introduced.

These two historical snapshots appear to yield few insights into the new post-Tahrir paradigm in the region. After all, today’s embattled regimes will not be able to impose rules from a position of strength and opposition movements, backed up by the threat of renewed public protests, will wield considerable leverage at the bargaining table.

On the other hand, the cases of Tunisia and Jordan do show how institutional change was instrumental to regime continuity. By instituting electoral mechanisms that hampered coordination and reinforced clientelism, incumbents were able to co-opt rivals in the electoral and parliamentary arenas. In this sense, electoral rules are not only "nested games" within the broader arena of political reform but also are part and parcel of regime maintenance strategies. What might new electoral rules look like?

As former dominant party regimes, Tunisia and Egypt will likely shed their "winner-takes-all" formulas and move toward a more proportional system that promotes pluralism and inclusiveness in parliament. Yemen was already considering doing the same in advance of legislative elections scheduled for this fall. We should be wary of the potential consequences of these changes, however.

Although Paul Salem argues that proportional representation would provide a more equitable distribution of seats in the case of Egypt’s parliament, this system could result in fractious legislative bodies that are unable to push for more far-reaching constitutional reforms. Parliaments in both Morocco and Kuwait have significant Islamist representation, for example, but their influence is diluted in relation to the monarchy. In the electoral arena, this system also carries risks for the opposition because it could inhibit coordination between larger and smaller parties and prevent the formation of electoral alliances. Unless new electoral laws actually strengthen elected parliaments, as Marwan Muasher has called for, the ruse of electoral reform may repeat itself.

Recent events should also remind us that ruling parties in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen may be down but they are certainly not out. Although their image has been irrevocably tarnished, their deeply entrenched patronage networks and vast electoral machines still exist. Elites embedded within these networks are already trying to reposition themselves during the transition process. Egypt’s old guard has brought up on corruption charges a former steel magnate and close confidante of Mubarak’s son in an attempt to inoculate itself from potential allegations of systemic abuse. Tunisia’s government-controlled labor unions federation has tried to recast itself as the defender of the rights of workers and protesters. And apparatchiks in Yemen’s ruling party have been distributing food to pro-government demonstrators who are occupying the main square.

These regimes are still here, as Marina Ottaway points out, and are fighting back to retain as much power and control as they can. The nature of electoral arrangements will be a key test for assessing the pulse of rulers, ruling parties and ruling elites.

Regime holdovers and former party bosses will not suffer if new electoral laws simply paper over clientelism and some could actually benefit if new electoral laws inadvertently promote personalism. Political scientists have shown how particular electoral formulas affect candidates’ incentives to campaign on a personal rather than party reputation. As such, ostensibly liberal electoral reforms that allow open party lists, multi-member districts and preferential voting may be precisely the types of mechanisms that provide these vestiges a ticket back into power rather than usher them out.

In sum, we should pay careful attention to the rules that govern upcoming elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. If history is any guide, protestors and reformists may be left out in the cold if transitional electoral systems simply diffuse power and reinforce clientelism rather than alter the rules of the game in a fundamental way.

Andrew Barwig, Ph.D., is currently working on a book manuscript about elections and authoritarian resilience in the Middle East.