Elections in Transitions: Change and Continuity

By Ellen Lust, Yale University

* This memo was prepared for “The Arab Uprisings Explained” workshop, October 2-3, 2014. 

The Arab uprisings that began in 2010-2011 were dramatic moments, capturing the attention and imagination of people at home and abroad. In Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and, to a lesser extent, Yemen, long-standing leaders were toppled; new parties and movements emerged; and voters flooded the polls. And yet, even in the midst of such enormous change, there was continuity. Existing political logics and institutional arrangements continued to impact outcomes, and the expectations that citizens developed through decades of authoritarian regimes shaped voting behavior to a striking extent.

In The Arab Uprisings Explained, I argued that elections play multiple roles in shaping state-society relations, with different effects on regime stability. The role of elections depends partly on how the elections fit within the political logic and power structure of the regime. In the chapter, I focused on how institutional arrangements drove political logic, arguing, “where elections are integrally tied to the regime’s legitimacy (primarily one-party regimes), elections contribute most to instability and are least useful in shoring up incumbents that come under crises. When a regime’s legitimacy is insulated from electoral politics (primarily monarchies), elections are least likely to contribute to instability.” [1] I also explored how the role of elections could also change over time. The emergence of new political problems – including succession struggles, economic stagnation, and overdrawn state coffers – could change the stakes of elections, the willingness of citizens to engage and, finally, the impact of elections on stability.

Since that chapter was written, the Arab world continues to demonstrate both the diversity of roles that elections can play, and how they reflect and impact the power relationships within regimes. The more than 40 elections held since 2011 have shown just how diverse elections can be. There have been elections over local municipal seats, constitution-writing assemblies, parliaments, presidents, and constitutions. For each type of election, of course, the stakes have been different.

More importantly, however, the meaning of elections differs, even when the institutions at stake are the same, because they play different roles in the larger political game. Look at the presidential elections, for instance: Yemen’s presidential election was a fait accompli intended to legitimize the regime; Egypt’s first presidential election, leading to Mohamed Morsi’s election in 2012, was a high-stakes affair over the future of the country, while the Egyptian presidential election in 2014 was carefully orchestrated, with fairly pre-determined outcomes intended as a step toward legitimizing the incumbents. So, too, is the case with constitutional referendums. Egypt’s first constitutional referendum in 2011 was more important as a step in the transition than in the details of the amendments (which were quickly disregarded); its second and third referendums, in 2012 and 2014, were arguably attempts at political capture, by opposite sides of the political spectrum. Elections play different roles not simply because they determine who comes to power in institutions with different rights and responsibilities, or even because the balance of power between contenders is different, but because they play a role in the broader regime formation and maintenance, and the issues at stake vary: Elections can legitimize winners, be the final blow to oppositions in a larger battle for power, be part of an on-going struggle over the regime, or simply allow a process of contestation over lower level stakes (whether in consolidated democracies or autocracies).

Elites are keenly aware of how elections fit into larger political struggles, but for many citizens, elections are understood in the ways that they are nested in daily lives, patterns of behavior, and social relationships that do not change quickly. Certainly elections in transitions can put policy as well as patronage on the table, leading many who previously abstained to go to the polls. But, for many – and perhaps in some cases even most – citizens, little has changed. Those who went to the polls before 2011 in the hope that the winner would help them get their child into school, their sick parent to a hospital, or gain access to other state services continue to look for the same. Old habits die hard.

I saw this time and again in the last few years. Voters tended not to distinguish between elections for the president, parliament, Constituent Assembly, or other institutions that, at least in theory, should play very different roles. For instance, when I asked one Tunisian on the eve of the country’s 2011 elections for the Constituent Assembly (charged with drafting a constitution) if it mattered to him whether the candidate understood legal and constitutional issues, he looked astonished. What mattered, he explained to me patiently, was that the candidate was a good man who served the area well. The same was true in Egypt. Certainly some voted for the “big issues,” seeing the very direction of the country at stake. But many others cast their ballots based on whether the person is “a good man” (or, less frequently, “a good woman”), whom they see as helping them, or people like them with everyday problems. Not surprisingly, when I asked people in August 2014 if voters in the upcoming parliamentary elections would “go back to” casting their ballots on the same bases as they did under ousted President Hosni Mubarak (when service provision had a huge impact on candidate choice), many pointed out that they never stopped.

Over time, we generally see greater reluctance to go to the polls across all countries. In Egypt, the turnout levels remained nearly the same in the Egyptian presidential elections of 2012 (43.4 percent of registered voters in first round and 51.8 percent in the second) and 2014 (47.5 percent), but only after authorities extended voting and pro-Sisi forces reportedly put pressure on Egyptians to go to the polls.[2] Most analysts and pollsters also expected a much lower turnout in the recent Tunisian parliamentary elections than in the Constituent Assembly elections of 2011, and many felt exhilarated when the turnout was higher than expected.[3]

That the public is less enthusiastic about elections is not surprising. Across the world, the euphoria that has initially driven voters to the polls has dissipated as transitions proceed. Citizens in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya are far more concerned with security and economic issues, such as inflation and unemployment, than they are with elections and even human rights.[4] Moreover, and this is key, many view democracy in economic terms – a narrow gap between rich and poor, providing the basic necessities for all people, or creating opportunities for the middle class – rather than in terms of accountability. Again, this is neither new nor unique: Amaney Jamal and Mark Tessler argued in 2008 that over half of Arabs saw economic issues as the most important characteristic of democracy,[5] and Arab Barometer and Transitional Governance Project polls find this today. Analyses of Afrobarometer polls during the transition period there also showed similar results.[6] It does help to explain, however, why enthusiasm for elections and support for democracy wane as economic problems escalate and security staggers. Elections, so often touted as a symbol of democracy, seem to bring little real change; parties are unable to mobilize support; and elected governments fail to bring economic growth and security.

Moreover, where transitions have stumbled, many voters learned the hard way that their votes may not count. Egyptians who trekked to the polls in the 2011-12 parliamentary elections saw a judicial decree disband the elected parliament less than a year later, in June 2012. The same was true of the presidential election that brought Morsi to power in summer 2012, and the referendum that passed the hastily drawn constitution of 2012. Both were overturned when Egyptians took to the streets the following summer. Libyans now face similar lessons, as they see the newly elected parliament sidelined, with a civil war raging and a “second parliament” formed.

The future remains to be seen, of course. It is too early to know the extent to which citizens will remain engaged in elections, and what the outcomes of elections will be. It is clear, however, that elections continue to play varied roles depending on the political struggles at hand, even when they are contests over the same type of institutions. Moreover, citizens’ engagement in them is driven by immediate conditions and their past learning. Ultimately, it is both elite struggles over institutions and citizen engagement that will determine what the future looks like.

Ellen Lust is a professor of political science and founding director of the Program on Governance and Local Development at Yale University, and nonresident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy i


[1] Ellen Lust, “Elections” in Marc Lynch (Ed.), The Arab Uprisings Explained (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), p. 219.

[2] “Egypt extends presidential poll by a day,” Al Jazeera, last modified May 27, 2014, accessed October 23, 2014. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/05/egyptians-prepare-second-day-polls-201452721124420247.html. Crucial sentence: “Voters have reportedly received text messages telling them they could be fined if they do not vote.” For a more general statement of concern regarding the increasingly controlled nature of the presidential elections, see “Carter Center Expresses Concern about the State of Egypt’s Political Transition,” May 16, 2014, accessed October 23, 2014. http://www.cartercenter.org/resources/pdfs/news/pr/egypt-05162014.pdf

[3] “SIGMA Conseil: Pour les législatives Ennahdha et Nidaa se retrouvent en tête des sondages,” Tuniscope, April 8. 2014. http://www.tuniscope.com/article/42795/actualites/politique/sigma-424410 (accessed October 23, 2014)

[4] My colleagues and I found this in surveys conducted in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya as part of the Transitional Governance Project, accessed October 23, 2014. www.transitionalgovernanceproject.org

[5] Amaney Jamal and Mark Tessler, “Attitudes in the Arab World,” Journal of Democracy 19(2011): 97-110.

[6] Bratton and Mattes (2000) found both intrinsic support for democracy and performance-based support, based on economic well-being and political rights. See Michael Bratton and Robert Mattes, “Support for Democracy in Africa: Intrinsic or Instrumental?” Afrobarometer Working Paper No. 1 (2000), accessed October 23, 2014. http://www.afrobarometer.org/files/documents/working_papers/AfropaperNo1.pdf

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