A certain Arab country recently held parliamentary elections. The vote was reasonably free and fair. Turnout was 67 percent, and the opposition won a near majority of the seats -- 45 percent to be exact. Sounds like a model democracy. Yet, rather than suggesting a bold, if unlikely, democratic experiment, Saturday's elections in Bahrain instead reflected a new and troubling trend in the Arab world: the free but unfair -- and rather meaningless -- election.
Something similar will happen on Nov. 9 in Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom is a close U.S. ally that has grown increasingly proficient at predetermining election results without actually rigging them. It involves gerrymandering at a scale unknown in the West and odd electoral engineering (Jordan is one of only three countries in the world that uses something called Single Non Transferable Vote for national elections). Even when the opposition is allowed to win, the fundamentals do not necessarily change. Parliamentary legislation in countries like Jordan and Bahrain, after all, can be blocked by appointed "Upper Houses." And even if that were not the case, the King (or the President) and his ministers -- all appointed -- can also kill any threatening legislation.
If you go to Amman today, there are election tents and colorful posters everywhere. If you're lucky, you may stumble across an impassioned campaign speech. The government has launched a Western-style voter awareness campaign called "Let us Hear Your Voice." The U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) has been conducting voter registration drives and organizing a "Get-out-the-vote" effort to boost youth participation. For its part, the U.S. Congress may very well decide to pass a resolution, as it did in September 2007, commending Jordan for its "continued commitment to holding elections." The elections will likely be free. But, oddly enough, there is no opposition. Jordan's only real political party -- the Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing -- has opted to boycott. For the first time ever, Jordan, long regarded as a bastion of progressive reform, may very well end up with a parliament where the opposition has 0 out of 110 seats.
Jordan and Bahrain are not alone. Egypt, too, will face parliamentary elections next month. Meanwhile, a growing number of Arab countries have opted to hold reasonably free elections, including Morocco, Kuwait, and Yemen. But rarely has the discrepancy between the appearance and substance of elections proven so vast. And rarely has so much been fought over so little.
It is somewhat surprising that things turned out this way…..