NEW YORK — With the dawn of 2006, last year's early euphoria about elections across the Middle East should yield to more sober assessments of the prospects for democracy in this troubled region - and to more sophisticated understanding of the difference between electoral politics and genuine democracy.
There were more elections held in the Middle East in the past year than ever before. Presidential elections took place in the Palestinian Authority in January of last year, and parliamentary elections are scheduled there this month. Municipal elections were held in Saudi Arabia in a series of rounds between February and April. June saw parliamentary elections in Lebanon and presidential elections in Iran. What were billed as Egypt's first contested presidential elections took place in September, and Egyptians went back to the polls to vote in parliamentary elections in November and December. Iraqis exercised the franchise fully three times in 2005, voting in January to elect an interim government; in October to approve the constitution, and in December to elect a parliament.
For the Bush administration, and for many hopeful Americans, this was good news. Although the administration criticized the Iranians for having failed to include all the presidential candidates who had applied to run, the comparable elections in Egypt, in which several candidates were authorized to oppose incumbent President Hosni Mubarak, who was running for his fifth term, were hailed as a milestone. Despite the flaws, it appeared that democracy was finally coming to a region long associated with autocratic government, and the United States was delighted. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a speech in Cairo in June, "Liberty is the universal longing of every soul, and democracy is the ideal path for every nation."
But are liberty and democracy really served by elections mounted largely to please an international patron like the US? Do these elections really take the sounding of popular opinion, or are they simply designed to placate an American administration anxious to show progress in the region?
Certainly by most standards, none of the elections included all, or even most, of the possible participants. The Bush administration roundly condemned the Iranians for having disqualified dozens of reformist candidates before the polling, but nearly all of the elections in the region exhibited significant flaws and omissions. Less than a quarter of the electorate bothered to go to the polls in the Egyptian presidential elections. Shortly after the parliamentary elections that followed, Ayman Nour, who had served as the principal opposition candidate in President Mr. Mubarak's highly touted victory was defeated in his run for reelection to his parliamentary seat of 10 years, and then jailed on election fraud charges. The much celebrated Saudi municipal elections excluded all women from the voter rolls and, although the parliamentary elections in Iraq saw a voter turnout estimated at 70 percent, it was the first time all year that Sunni voters did not boycott the polling altogether. Moreover, across the region, the more free and fair the elections were, the less successful were ostensibly democratic parties; in both Palestinian and Egyptian elections, Islamist parties did far better than expected.
For many of the governments, elections are a necessary evil, an expensive spectacle produced for the benefit of eager audiences in Washington. As Egypt's Mubarak is said to have complained, "the only problem ... with free elections is that you cannot predict the outcome." His government, like the rest of the governments in the region that have spent time and money mounting spectacular electoral productions, long ago learned to talk the "donor talk" and to use the "democracy language." It is a cynical ploy but it works, since both the US administration and the US Congress are willingly taken in, eager to be able to say to their own voters at home that the enormous resources being devoted to the region are somehow fostering the promised liberty and democracy.
And what of the Middle East's voters? Most of the participants in these spectacles know perfectly well what the outcome will be, but they go to the polls anyway. For some, of course, the few dollars they are paid for their vote by the ruling party or the local political bosses is worth their time to stand in line. Others nurse the faint hope that their vote might actually count and that their candidates will do "better than expected." For still others, voting is an opportunity, however futile, simply to demonstrate that they do indeed want a say in their own governance.
Despite this voter willingness, the US needs to be careful about what it calls a successful democratic election in the Middle East. Too many dashed expectations run the risk of creating a generation of disenchanted, cynical ex-voters who thought the candidates, and their Western backers, were going to deliver real goods, not simply the temporary satisfaction of an inked finger.
• Lisa Anderson is the dean at the School of International Public Affairs at Columbia University.