Wait long enough for elections in the Middle East and eventually four come along at the same time. This year, four of the most pivotal countries in the region will hold national elections for the head of state: Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Egypt.
In each case, the front-runner is a familiar face. But each election is also raising a more fundamental question about the direction of the country. Taken together, the changes brought by all four will probably alter the landscape of the region.
Start in Egypt, where voting has started today on a referendum on the proposed constitution. A strong showing in favour of the constitution will make it almost certain that military chief General Abdel Fattah El Sisi will stand in the autumn presidential elections. More fundamentally, the referendum and the presidential election will set the direction for Egypt’s trajectory and cement the strategy of removing the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood from power. If turnout in both cases is high, the US, which initially opposed the removal of Mohammed Morsi, will have to admit the Egyptian army has popular support for its decisions.
What happens in Egypt will also have an impact in Turkey, where, in the autumn, the first popular vote for presidency will take place. The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is widely expected to stand, even if he and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) look tired after a decade in power. Even with all the challenges he has faced this past year – 2013 was the year the gloss came off the previously popular prime minister – Mr Erdogan could still win, potentially setting himself up for another decade in power.
But what is at stake is not merely who runs the country – Mr Erdogan is expected to do a job swap with the current president, à la Vladimir Putin – but whether AKP have anything to say to the country beyond their constituency. Increasingly, AKP have played to their conservative and Islamist base, alienating many of those who believe in Turkey’s secular Kemalist tradition. It was this feeling that Mr Erdogan was “Islamising” the country that sparked protests against him last summer. Given the dearth of opposition to him, and given AKP’s formidable ability to mobilise its base, Mr Erdogan could still win the presidency. But opposition to him is building. The hardest road will be to broaden his appeal ahead of the election. Without that, Mr Erdogan could win the popular vote, but AKP would lose the country.
Turkey’s leader is not the only regional politician who needs to broaden his appeal, although Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki faces rather more deadly consequences.
In Iraq, parliamentary elections will be held in the spring. Mr Al Maliki will stand again for what would be his third term. But the important question is whether he, or any other candidate, can present a credible platform that would reach out to the Sunni minority.
The likelihood is no – not because Mr Al Maliki cannot, but because he has no need to. In 2010, he faced a political party, Iraqiya, that had support among both Sunnis and Shia.
This time around, with Iraqiya fragmenting, his chief rival is the Shia movement led by Muqtada Al Sadr. The competition between them will be to shore up their support among the Shia majority. In any case, Mr Al Maliki, who has spent much of the past four years sidelining the Sunnis, is not a consensus candidate, even if the whispers coming out of Washington, four months before the election, are seeking to persuade Iraqis otherwise.
But without some rapprochement with the Sunni heartland, Iraq faces the serious likelihood of sectarian violence. Already, 2013 was the worst year for deaths since the end of the US presence. The need for an Iraqi prime minister to reach out to Sunnis is not merely a matter of winning elections, it is a matter of holding Iraqi together as a state.
The last election in the region will be contested by a man who has done his utmost to destroy his country as a state.
In Syria, presidential elections are due to be held this year. Technically, of course, Bashar Al Assad has never been elected, he was merely “confirmed” by a modest 97 per cent of Syrians in 2007. That may happen again this year. But it is not the election itself that is of interest – no one expects it to be either free or fair. What will matter will be the opposition’s reaction to it.
The opposition announced this week that they had “agreed” Mr Al Assad could have no role in the country’s future. But they neglected to clarify with whom they had agreed this. The only people consulted are representatives of the international community, who have made clear they have no intention of putting military might behind their words. This is simply bad politics. Knowing that both Iran and Russia have refused to accept preconditions, and before even clarifying whether they intend to attend the Geneva talks, the opposition seek to decide the outcome of negotiations.
What the opposition need is a serious answer to the question: what now? What alternative are they offering to another seven years of Mr Al Assad? What political solution are they offering that would satisfy the undecided middle that a transition would be smooth? What vision of the future can they deliver that will allay the fears of most Syrians that their once-secular country will be run by Islamists?
Elections, by themselves, don’t decide the future of a country. What they do is allow the electorate to legitimise who they believe has the best vision of the future. The front-runners for all four elections have been in politics long enough to know this.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai