A woman votes at a polling station during the local elections in Rabat, June 12, 2009.
Rafael Marchante / Reuters

Local elections in the Arab world, and their potential for democratic change, have long been an understudied force. But in the Arab-majority countries that have held, or plan to hold, elections in the period between fall 2015 and fall 2016—Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Palestine—local elections have become a new vehicle through which citizens can express their concerns about governance.

TRICKLE DOWN

As a way to appease the populace after the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011, King Mohammed VI of Morocco promised to pursue a number of democratic reforms, including in local elections. Some of those reforms were finally realized on September 4, 2015 when citizens had the opportunity to vote directly for their local and regional leaders for the first time.

In another first, these elections tested the durability of the country’s most dramatic political change post-Spring: the defeat of the pro-monarchy parties by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) during the November 2011 legislative elections. In the latest round of local elections, the PJD had to compete with 11 parties, but managed to secure a small plurality with a quarter of the total votes. This confirmed, for the first time, that the PJD’s message of good governance continues to resonate with voters as it shifted from an opposition to governing party. In fact, good governance became a priority during the election. Although Morocco’s main opposition group, the pro-monarchy Authenticity and Modernity Party, sought to distract voters by emphasizing the PJD’s Islamist undertones, the PJD underscored its anti-corruption efforts and fiscally responsible policies, which it claimed characterized its tenure in Parliament. Although the government has in fact accomplished very little on either front, the PJD’s continued ability to draw voters not only demonstrates its appeal, but also the monarchy’s degree of tolerance to opposition within its governments. And despite the lack of demonstrable progress, observers were surprised to note that the PJD had won an absolute majority in urban areas not traditionally supportive of the party, such as in Fez.

Given that the monarchy has promised reforms to promote “regionalization,” Morocco’s municipal authorities, and by extension the country's local democratically elected representatives, should, in theory, expect greater autonomy when it comes to issues of local governance. It appears that the highly centralized monarchy regards both parliamentary and local elections as channels for demonstrating its commitment to a reformist agenda while simultaneously ensuring that political groups that do not support the monarchy, such as the illegal Islamist Justice and Charity, remain outside the political process.

Municipal reforms have also reached the heart of the Arab peninsula: Saudi Arabia. Although national political parties are prohibited, and there are no national elections, the December 12, 2015 regional elections were the third-ever in the country. The Saudi government restricted voting to only two-thirds of municipal seats and appointed the other positions directly (previously it appointed half), but this vote was notable both for its relative democracy and for the lifting of bans on women’s political participation—they could both vote and run for municipal seats. And for some of Saudi Arabia’s women’s rights activists, this moment—which saw the election of 20 women to office—was historic. Over 900 women ran for municipal posts, and approximately one in ten voters were women, a number that becomes more impressive considering the institutional difficulties facing Saudi women who wish to travel outside the home.

That said, the Saudi kingdom, like Morocco, has its own political motivations to encourage local electoral reform, such as creating a symbolic image of reform, since the municipal councils themselves have little power. It is worth noting, however, that the local elections drew a little less than half of the Kingdom’s registered voters, who themselves make up a little over five percent of the country’s total citizens. (Compare that to the roughly 40 percent of citizens registered to vote in Morocco.) According to voters and non-voters whom I interviewed, the low turnout was due to a combination of factors: lack of information, interest, and conviction that voting matters.

Still, the fact that the government saw a need to adjust the parameters of municipal elections at all is worth noting. It demonstrates that even Saudi Arabia, the Arab country that is most devoted to its monarchical legacy, is feeling the pressure to give an appearance of relative progressiveness.

TRICKLE UP

While Morocco and Saudi Arabia are examples of how governance issues can be addressed by freeing local politics, Lebanon’s country-wide municipal elections in May demonstrated how many voters see local politics as the potential key to unlocking national gridlock. Although Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy that operates under a confessional system, its national government has been paralyzed now for two years, unable to resolve its policy disputes and elect a president. But in multiple municipalities, there were a number of near political upsets, with new parties challenging the established status-quo of Lebanon’s two largest political blocs, the March 14 Alliance and March 8 Alliance. This suggests that voters are changing their views about the effectiveness of voter participation. For example, during the protests against the Beirut trash crisis last year, when the government failed to coordinate garbage collection, the Beirut-based reformist movement, Beirut Madinati or, “Beirut is my city,” emerged, challenging the political status quo by pushing issues of local governance to the forefront of the elections. Beirut Madinati highlighted the technocratic backgrounds of its party members, emphasizing functional governance and consciously pushing back against the party and sectarian loyalties on which other parties relied. Its platform focused on increasing the “livability of the city,” campaigning not only for waste management, but also affordable housing and better use of public and communal city spaces.

Supporters of the Popular Movement (PM) distribute electoral posters during a campaign rally in Rabat, June 8, 2009.
Rafael Marchante / Reuters

Although Beirut Madinati failed to win a majority in the municipal elections, the 40 percent of the vote that it did receive proved that its calls for municipal reform resonated with a large minority. Since Beirut’s elections came before other municipalities, other cities saw similar challenges to the political status quo , with opposition parties stepping up to challenged the failed policies of the political establishment. Some of these parties even succeeded: former Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi managed an upset in the Lebanese city of Tripoli, which is located 50 miles north of Beirut. The Rifi-backed “Tripoli’s Choice” party beat the coalition party of the long-dominant Future Movement, the largest member of the March 14 Alliance. The former justice minister ran on a hard anti-Hezbollah platform, saying that he refused to “cover up for Hezbollah's increased domination over the Lebanese government.” Rifi also criticized Future Movement leader Saad Hariri for backing Suleiman Franjieh for the presidency, a candidate who is seen as close to Hezbollah. In southern Lebanon, which is Hezbollah’s traditional stronghold, its dominance was challenged by Shiite opposition parties in Dahiyeh and Bourj al-Barajneh, both southern suburbs of Beirut. This reflected a growing unease over Hezbollah’s continued presence in Syria, where it is aiding the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Local security issues that included bombings in Tripoli and Bourj al-Barajneh, reportedly linked to Syria, as well as Hezbollah’s continued involvement in an intra-Arab war, have brought the Syrian war into the homes of many of Lebanon’s electorate.

A similar phenomenon began to unfold in Palestine when the Palestinian Authority announced it would hold local elections in October, which were just recently delayed by the Palestinian Supreme Court. The politics of the Palestinian territories, like those of Lebanon, suffer from deep-rooted factionalism.

When Hamas made the announcement in July that it would participate in the Palestinian Authority-run municipal elections on October 8, analysts debated whether the unprecedented level of political participation by Hamas would jumpstart the territories’ stagnant national politics and generate the momentum needed to move forward on parliamentary and presidential elections. Hamas has boycotted all municipal elections since its success in the 2006 general elections and its subsequent takeover of Gaza from Fatah in 2007. Meanwhile, presidential elections for the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority have been postponed indefinitely since President Mahmoud Abbas’s election to a four-year presidential term in 2005. As in Lebanon, Palestinians appeared hopeful that the success of municipal elections would finally jumpstart the process of choosing a presidential candidate.

Both Fatah and Hamas also recognized the necessity of making good governance a key part of their platforms. For Hamas this became a particularly key issue since disgust with the political process in the West Bank left many speculating that Hamas could win in the traditionally Fatah-dominated region. To capitalize on this discontent, the party’s recently released promotional video, “Thank you Hamas,” which attempts to showcase the party’s ability to build and maintain infrastructure, especially since the pace of rebuilding in Gaza after the 2014 conflict with Israel has been so painfully slow. Recent polls reveal that there is disaffection in both the West Bank and Gaza over the two governments’ performances in this regard. A plurality of Palestinians are also convinced that unemployment is the single largest threat facing the territories. It is clear that better governance will be a key factor in the upcoming elections if and when they do occur.

ROOM FOR MORE

Despite static and in some cases gridlocked national governments, there is still room for top-down and bottom-up political evolution at the local level in many Arab states. While Morocco and Saudi Arabia are using local elections to mitigate criticisms of the monarchical government structure, for Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, the municipal elections provide a means for demanding change from leaders. Indeed, the largest drivers for change are often at the local level—whether it’s corruption, local safety, or the economy—rather than at a national one.

Still, it appears premature to argue that municipal elections will trigger national change. Moroccan and Saudi governments seem partly motivated to reform the election process in order to discourage opposition groups from gaining traction outside of the countries’ tightly-controlled political processes. Lebanon’s national elections have yet to materialize, and the recent Palestinian judicial decision to postpone elections suggests that elections may never materialize. These tensions indicate that Arab governments see municipal elections as a substitute for, rather than a stepping stone to, national reform, even if opposition voices believe otherwise. This may be a sign that although activists and rulers are willing to experiment at the local level, there is not enough driving interest in upsetting the status quo, particularly in the face of the Arab Spring’s legacy: civil war. Nevertheless, these reforms and upsets suggest that municipal elections and local grievances in the Arab states deserve more attention when examining future political trends in Arab countries.

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  • CATHERINE CLEVELAND is the former managing editor of Fikra Forum, an online publication focusing on current affairs in the Middle East. She is currently a master’s student in Middle East Studies at the University of Chicago.
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