Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 August 2019

Across the Middle East, new political paradigms are being shaped

In 2019, elections in Algeria, Israel and Tunisia offer opportunities for pivotal change

A poster of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the city of Constantine, Algeria. Lindsay Mackenzie for The National
A poster of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the city of Constantine, Algeria. Lindsay Mackenzie for The National

A year of people power has just passed. Last year, multiple elections were held across the Middle East, most notably in Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. This coming year will also host its share, in Algeria, Israel and Tunisia.

In each case, the ballots could prove pivotal and will be watched closely as a signal of the end of one era and the start of another. In each case, an election has the potential to take its country in a significantly different direction.

If one could decisively herald a new era, it is Algeria’s, scheduled for April.

This year will be Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 20th in power. So far, there has been no official decision over whether he will stand for the presidency, but party chiefs have said he will.

In one way, this April will be Mr Bouteflika’s last election. Although he passed a constitutional referendum in 2008 to remove the two-term limit on the presidency, that was reversed in 2016, meaning that if he stands and wins, he will leave office in 2024.

That mere fact will mean the consensus that has governed Algerian politics for two decades will begin to erode.

What Algerians refer to as “le pouvoir”, is a shadowy balance of power between the army, the intelligence services and the presidency.

Mr Bouteflika may be suffering the effects of a stroke and may not have addressed the country for six years, but behind the scenes he has taken significant steps to wrest control of the state from the army.

Almost immediately after his re-election in 2014, he dismissed the army’s chief of staff, senior members of the defence staff – even Mohamed Mediene, head of the intelligence services, and widely considered one of the most powerful men in the country. He then dismantled the agency and replaced it with a new body loyal to him, cementing civilian control over the intelligence apparatus.

A change, then, is definitely coming, although it is unclear when.

Mr Bouteflika’s dominance is so complete that no one could realistically oppose him and hope to win the election. But as Algeria's politics – and an ambitious new generation – begin to look beyond the Bouteflika era, cracks will start to appear.

April's election will be watched closely for signs of dissent between the civilian government and the military, as well as dissent from a new generation of politicians. The curtain that has for years hidden the nation’s politics may lift slightly this spring.

Israelis, too, will wonder whether their election, also held in April, will herald a new era beyond Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Netanyahu has been in power for thirteen non-consecutive years. This April will either cement his reputation as the longest-serving Israeli leader or end his career. His opponents hope it will be the latter.

On Saturday, one of the factions in his fractious right-wing coalition broke away to form a new party. Named the New Right and established by hardliners Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, it will seek to copy the model of Likud, Mr Netanyahu's party, which has brought together religious groups, settlers and extreme nationalists. That has proved a durable constituency for Mr Netanyahu, easily swayed by scaremongering about Palestinians.

This election will cement the collapse of any moderate voices. The Labour party, historically the only progressive political group in Israel, has all but collapsed, languishing with barely double-digit seats in the Knesset. But polling now suggests it might crash to single digits at the next election.

The centre-left has been unable to compete with Likud, struggling to find a way to connect with an increasingly belligerent public and failing to articulate an answer to the central problem of Israeli politics, the occupation of Palestine.

The result has been a more socially conservative Israel, a deteriorating situation in Palestine, and fewer friends abroad. It is noticeable that today when the far-right Jair Bolsonaro is sworn in as president of Brazil, Mr Netanyahu will be there, while most other countries are merely sending representatives. If there is an era beyond Mr Netanyahu, it will certainly not be a moderate one.

Tunisia's next election, scheduled for the end of 2019, could, however bring about genuine change – ushering in a new paradigm, in which established political parties no longer dominate.

Last summer hosted the first municipal elections since the revolution, with independent candidates gaining more votes than the major parties. Another deeply symbolic moment came in September, when the five-year alliance between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes came to an end. It is not yet clear who will stand for each party at next year's presidential election.

The question that this year's election has the potential to answer is whether Tunisia will revert to what has been historically normal during these past few years of rebuilding – a situation where power cycles between one of the two main parties – or whether it will split wider, opening the door to new parties, or even to those without party affiliation.

The personification of this dilemma is Prime Minister Youssef Chahed. Although originally backed by Nidaa Tounes, he is now at odds with the leadership, particularly Hafedh Caid Essebsi – son of the president and a man who has barely disguised presidential ambitions of his own. Mr Chahed could yet stand for the presidency himself, without the backing of any political party.

If that happened, it would mean the party system was fragmenting at the top of politics, as it appears to be fragmenting at a municipal level, opening the door to new ways of doing politics in a country only just recovering from throwing off the old way.

Any new era – an era beyond Mr Bourghiba, beyond Mr Netanyahu, and beyond Tunisia's party system – would be more complex and more uncertain.

But it would offer change. Politics in each of these three countries has been too stagnant. The elections this year could bring long overdue change.

Updated: January 1, 2019 04:19 PM

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