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The Axis of Elections

What three elections in India’s near abroad might mean

Written by Alia Allana |
June 1, 2009 12:40:40 am

This summer is poised to be hotter than most as Lebanon,Iran and Afghanistan go to the polls in quick succession. Famous faces may well be replaced with some lesser-known,as Saad Hariri,Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamid Karzai face the electoral heat.

Lebanon,which goes first,was in its heyday the Middle East’s Riviera,an escape from the humdrum realities of neighbouring Arab states,the closest the Mideast got to the West — until it was gripped by a 15-year civil war. Its post-war reconstruction was synonymous with one name: Rafik Hariri. His assassination brought the country to its knees,pushed his son — Saad Hariri — into political office,and once again divided Lebanon along sectarian lines. The March 8 alliance consisted of the Hezbollah party,Shi’a clerics close to Iran; the March 14 alliance,headed by Saad Hariri,enjoyed Western support. March 8’s grievances pushed Lebanon into political instability for 18 months,ending in a compromise which gave them a veto over cabinet decisions; this time they seek to influence parliament.

Hezbollah might indeed do well,but this might not necessarily be as problematic as earlier. The Party of God has undergone an interesting makeover: Shi’a clerics have been replaced by intellectual technocrats,bellicose rhetoric by talk of economic development. Though absolute in ideology,their programme of reconstruction has appealed to both Shi’a and Christians. Should they win the elections,they intend to seek a unity government with March 14; Saad Hariri has rejected this outright. Not encouraging the radicals’ makeover might well be a mistake.

Then there’s Iran,a country usually associated with a face that can grab attention. Looking back at the reign of the last Shah,one can find endless columns tracing his antics,be it bellicosity at the Strait of Hormuz or skiing at St Moritz. Post-revolution,Iran has held nine presidential elections; the tenth will indicate whether the people identify with the conservatism of Ahmadinejad or are ready for a reformist.

Ahmadinejad’s tenure hasn’t exactly succeeded. At home,the economy is underperforming; inflation remains a problem and unemployment a cause for concern. On the international stage,Ahmadinejad has been both a source of sinful entertainment and worry. Unsurprisingly,his opponent,Mir-Hossein Moussavi,has broad appeal amongst Tehran’s elite and his campaigning has been an indication of the freedoms he will usher in. Campaigning with his wife by his side,hitherto unseen in Iran,he argues for greater social freedom,economic change and detente with the West.

No sitting Iranian president has ever lost re-election; however this one may be different. Traditionally voter participation has indicated that during the second term people refrain from voting as they assume re-election. This year,the same number as those who voted in 2005 are expected — roughly 60 per cent. Turnout will matter: the electorate is roughly 46 million; if it’s less than 27 million,Ahmadinejad should return,as he can count on 13 million conservative votes; a large turnout,one pushing 30 million,would move the polls towards Moussavi.

Finally,Afghanistan,with polls on August 20,will be dominated by security concerns. Unlike the Iranian elections where the opposition can be silenced — as has been seen through recent attempts at censorship (blocking Facebook?!) by the government,or the Lebanese elections where a veto will suffice,the opposition in Afghanistan consists of armed insurgents. Despite the fact that the United Front is the legitimate opposition the real threat to the leadership is Taliban sabotage.

The month of August has traditionally been peak fighting season. Hence increased ISAF troops — 4000 pledged for the election alone — should be seen. The UN has however indicated that there will be “some districts where it will be difficult to have elections.” The problem is two-pronged: in some areas low voting may jeopardise the outcome of the vote however further delays in the election may well plunge the country into further chaos as issues over constitutional accountability will arise.

The May 8 registration saw over 44 hopefuls; on June 12 the final list will be made public. Pundits maintain that despite Karzai’s fall in popularity at the beginning of the year,he is most likely to return as president,as the opposition fails to unite behind one candidate. However,he will face two serious challengers: Dr Abdullah,from the United Front,and technocrat Ashraf Ghani,who enjoys Richard Holbrooke’s support. Voter registration indicated broad participation,which is excellent news. Despite the corruption and inadequacies of the Afghan government,the people of Afghanistan have faith in the electoral process,and this should not be overlooked.

George Eliot wrote,“An election is coming. Universal peace is declared,and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry.” As India’s near abroad experiences shifts in politics one can only hope that internal elements within the states itself do not derail the electoral mechanism.

alia.allana@expressindia.com

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