For a number of Arab countries, including Bahrain, Jordan, and Egypt, 2010 witnessed yet another round of disappointing parliamentary elections.
In all three countries, ruling parties faced serious competition from the opposition. However, as elections neared and campaigns heated up, the undermining of opposition parties intensified. The authoritarian regimes' methods ranged from media censorship and mass arrests to violent crackdowns.
On October 23, 2010, Bahrain, the only Gulf state that allows political organizations known as "societies," held its third parliamentary elections. The predominantly Shiite Gulf state, ruled by a Sunni government, managed to pull off a reasonably free but unfair election. Granted, no reports of direct electoral fraud emerged after the election but it was preceded by a crackdown on government critics, a clampdown on the media, the intimidation of opposition members, and arrest of prominent activists.
Undeterred, the Shiite-led Wefaq Party participated and swept 18 of the 40-seat Council of Representatives. But for Bahrain’s Shiite majority that has long complained of discrimination in accessing government jobs and housing, the election did not lead to a change in the political makeup of the government since the members of the upper house, Bahrain’s main legislative body, are directly appointed by the king.
Unlike Bahrain where main opposition group Al-Wefaq and Sunni Islamist groups Al-Asalah and Al-Menbar participated in the elections, Egypt and Jordan’s opposition parties chose to boycott theirs. The hope that elections in those two countries might provide a glimpse into democratization in the Middle East were quickly dashed as the rigging or manipulation of the vote was carefully crafted long before election day.
On November 9, 2010, Jordan held parliamentary elections that were also perceived as free but unfair. The Jordanian government passed a new electoral law earlier that year that was viewed by the opposition as favoring tribal allegiances at the expense of political and social platforms. This led the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing, the Islamic Action Front, to boycott the elections citing a “lack of genuine desire for reform” on the part of the government.
As a result, loyalists to Jordan's King Abdullah II and tribal-affiliated candidates won most of the upper and lower house seats. And although the boycott damaged the credibility of the elections, the royal family was able to cling on to power domestically while preserving its democratic image internationally.
On November 28, 2010, Egypt held its parliamentary elections after violently clamping down on the opposition. In the weeks and months leading up to the parliamentary election, the government carried out wide-scale sweeps, targeting members and supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the latter's participation in the first round, it failed to secure any seats, citing vote rigging, fraud and ballot stuffing.
Both the liberal Wafd Party and the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted the run-off round on December 5, 2010 and with 97 percent control of the People's Assembly, President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party managed to further tighten its grip on power in Egypt.
The electoral farce held in Bahrain, Jordan, and Egypt is part of what has become a familiar political game aimed at diffusing Arab anger and frustration with stagnating and unpopular regimes. Indeed, Arabs are growing tired of meaningless elections that merely offer a facade for change but leave them even more cynical about the possibility of a democratic transition of power.
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for 2010 classified all three countries as “authoritarian” and the Middle East and North Africa region as the most repressive globally. How much longer will these crumbling regimes be able to quell popular mobilization? And if boycotting campaigns keep on failing to delegitimize these regimes, one has to wonder what opposition parties will do next.