Democracy on the Rebound?

May has been an exciting month with elections in both Tunisia, Lebanon, and Iraq – even for a street sports fanatic like this blogger. In the first two countries, it was the first municipal and parliamentary elections, respectively since the Arab Spring in 2011. So what’s the verdict in these three countries, which are all a bit better than the region’s poor democratic image according to The Economist’s Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. The index lists Syria at the bottom of the list only one spot above North Korea as the very last and 167th least democratic country in the world. For the three ballot ticking countries you find Tunisia placed #69, Lebanon #104, and Iraq #112.

The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index map for 2017. Bluer colors represent more democratic countries.

Back in 2011 the whole world was watching and many (including this naive blogger) thought that the democratic wind of change sweeping through the region would allow for transformational and systemic change for the long term. As we all know history took another turn and today the region is in more despair than before with high unemployment and several ongoing civil wars. Covering the basic physiological and safety needs is therefore higher on the agenda for many of the 411 million people living in the region, than the name of the political system. This is not surprising. But it’s a shame, if it results in a less transparent and just governance of the country, because the people aren’t holding the ones in power responsible.

The recent elections can therefore be seen as an indicator of whether there is still a belief in a democratic system in the region, where the people hold the politicians accountable and where the voice of women also matters. Let’s just say that prior to the elections my hopes were high. And that the actual results are mixed.

Low voter turnout

In terms of voter turnout I must say, that I was disappointed to see that in all three countries less than half the voters fulfilled their civic duty and showed up on election day. In Lebanon voter turnout was 49%, in Iraq 45%, and in Tunisia as little as 34% showed up.

Supporters of Joumana Haddad, a novelist and candidate running on an independent list, protest against what they say are clear signs of fraud to deny her victory (source:

Another highly anticipated and much debated aspect of the elections was the number of female candidates in the race. We all know that you can’t win if you don’t run. That’s why several NGOs have focused on getting more female candidates on the ballot. This resulted in an impressive 700% increase in Lebanon, where 86 candidates ran for election compared to only 12 in 2009. Unfortunately the election didn’t go as well as the nominations. Only six women were elected for the parliament’s 128 seats, indicating a 50% increase compared to the 4 women elected in 2009. But having only 5% women in parliament is just not good enough.

Collaborating for transformational change

In Tunisia and Iraq the final results haven’t been published yet, but the situation is less grave, as both countries have a quota of seats reserved for female candidates, resulting in at least 25% of the decision makers being women in Iraq. I like this idea for several reasons. First of all because it is an effective way to move towards gender equality on a political level. Secondly, it helps NGOs break the illusion that we can change the world on our own. Susan Wolf Ditkoff and Abe Grindle describes this quite convincingly in their article “Audacious Philanthropy”, which illuminates how to achieve transformational change:

“Audacious social change is incredibly challenging. Yet history shows that it can succeed. Unfortunately, success never results from a single grant or silver bullet; it takes collaboration, government engagement, and persistence over decades, among other things.”

Over the years GAME has implemented several programs in Lebanon focusing on gender equality with the audacious long term objective to increase the number of women in parliament. By teaching and promoting the skills of democratic citizenship and by inspiring young women to take on a leadership role in their communities and challenge the traditional views on what women are capable of, I like to think that GAME has played a role (however minor) in the increase of women daring to engage in politics today. And encouraged young men to vote for them.

Female role models in GAME pitching their advocacy campaign targeted the public and politicians of Beirut Municipality.

But the result of the election also shows that more is needed. If we want to see real transformational change we have to work together with the politicians who are the primary duty bearers in providing for the people who elects them. Only then can we succeed, whatever the challenge may be.

I guess the activist and civil rights leader Coretta Scott King was right:

“Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won you earn it and win it in every generation.”


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