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Elections in the Arab World: Do They Matter?

New article urges scholars to look beyond electoral arena

Posted: July 7, 2011

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, electoral authoritarianism became the most widespread form of non-democratic government. Autocratic rulers remain commonplace, but these regimes permit contestation for executive office in national elections. Rather than pose a challenge to autocratic rule, however, elections have served to bolster authoritarian regimes through various mechanisms. Elections may serve as a release for social discontent, enabling regimes to survive crises; they may provide a venue to compete for state spending; and they may be a means to display a regime’s power and evoke awe among voters.

How do elections in the Middle East and North Africa measure up within this framework to elections in comparable Asian and sub-Saharan African regimes? “Executive Elections in the Arab World: When and How Do They Matter,” by Jason Brownlee, associate professor of government, has been published in the July issue of “Comparative Political Studies.” Drawing from an original dataset Brownlee compiled, the article provides some answers and lays out avenues for future research.

The starkest contrast between the regions is that in the Middle East and North Africa elections are much less frequent, less competitive and, in Egypt, marked by drastically lower turnout than in Asia and Africa. The relative lack of elections in the Arab world suggests that the struggle between autocratic rulers and their opponents has less to do with elections than it does in some cases from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Overall, the article critiques political scientists studying the region for focusing on elections and consequently missing more important aspects of politics, a point borne out by the current revolutionary wave.

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