In two Middle East hot spots – Lebanon and the Palestinian territories – the possibility of elections is coming into play. Balloting may or may not take place, and if it does, it might not resolve deep political tensions. But the mere fact that it is an option is an encouraging sign.
Why? Because active consideration of the ballot box points to a slow (very slow) political maturing in a largely undemocratic and often violent region of the world.
The Palestinian experiment with voting is still in the test-tube stage. Likewise, the Lebanese are barely out from under Syrian occupation (though not its machinations). And yet influential leaders in both places are actually returning to the election idea – or more accurately, the threat of elections – as a way to move forward politically.
That shows greater sophistication about the role of voting, an understanding that it's not a one-act show but an ongoing process that gives citizens the ultimate say.
People and parties in the Middle East are awakening to the fact that elections produce results – some unintended or unwelcome, but results.
Palestinians are experiencing the devastating consequences of last January's election. Their votes produced a divided government by giving control of parliament to Islamist Hamas, which the US defines as a terrorist group. If Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, of the secular Fatah party, succeeds in holding new elections – as he pledged on Saturday – voters will have a chance to show they want a two-state solution with Israel and an end to Western isolation.
In Lebanon, it's the political, social, and terrorist group Hizbullah that sees voters as a legitimizing force. Hizbullah has been emboldened by its rising popularity in the wake of the summer's war with Israel. It's using that popularity to push for veto-wielding seats in the Lebanese cabinet. By staging massive (but so far peaceful) protests, it hopes to get its way. If it doesn't, it promises to bring down the government through continued protest and to then let an election confirm its increased strength.
Even where elections are greatly manipulated, they can, in a limited way, take the public temperature. In local polls Friday, Iranians turned out in large numbers. Extremist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, though, won't like the results. Initial returns show that Iranians supported his opponents. Will he rein himself in?
There's a danger in expecting too much from democratic elections, especially in countries taking their first steps in this direction. Iraq serves as Exhibit A. Voters can elect mixed governments, which, without some kind of political agreement among the parties, results in paralysis, or worse, violence.
And elections don't always produce the desired results. That's why, for instance, a government panel in the tiny United Arab Emirates hand-picked several thousand voters for its first election which began Saturday. Governments such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia are only taking tentative steps toward democratic elections.
It's unknown whether Palestinian or Lebanese elections will actually occur. The mere threat of them may push vying political forces to compromise. But they are growing in influence as an option for peaceful political expression in a region that surely needs it.