Expert Commentary

Democracy, voting and public opinion in the Arab world: New research evidence

2015 roundup of studies that speak to issues of voting, elections and public opinion, as well as issues of anti-Americanism, in the Arab world.

In 2002 the United Nations issued a much-discussed report highlighting the lack of progress in Arab countries relative to other developing regions, and there has continued to be scrutiny of various social, political and economic indicators there. But a combination of closed regimes, highly nuanced cultural norms and burgeoning areas of conflict often make it difficult to interpret complex political trends and events. The available data relating to perceived changes in public attitudes must be read carefully, with the conflicting results of the 2011 Arab Spring standing as a stark reminder of this complexity.

Still, a variety of studies published in 2015 help shed light on emerging trends relating to elections and public opinion in the Arab world, which continues to go through a state of upheaval and transition. Interpreting voter intentions, attitudes and outcomes is particularly difficult in regimes that are neither fully democratic nor totalitarian: Where citizens are not necessarily forced to participate, and yet many turn out to vote despite the fact that the process is highly unlikely to influence the ultimate outcome of the election.

A 2015 study published in the journal Comparative Political Studies, “Elections in the Arab World: Why Do Citizens Turn Out?” seeks to explain voter turnout in such situations under authoritarian regimes in Arab countries. The dominant explanation in political theory to date has been one of patronage, in which citizens vote hoping to privately gain from public goods. The authors of the study, Carolina De Miguel of the University of Toronto, Jamal Amaney of Princeton and Mark Tessler from the University of Michigan draw on public opinion surveys to test this traditional explanation but add a second possibility: that turnout levels are an indication of citizen’s views of the governing regime and its performance.

The study uses Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine and Yemen as case studies, all of which held regular, somewhat competitive parliamentary elections between 2006 and 2009 (although in none of the countries did they provide a real threat to the ruling regime). The scholars’ general findings also account for attitudes about political Islam because “institutionalized opposition, when it exists, in most cases, comes primarily from Islamists movements.” De Miguel, Amaney and Tessler note that to date, “scholars have mainly focused on the reasons that authoritarian leaders permit and organize elections in the first place, and on the mechanisms by which they use electoral contests to further entrench and legitimize their power.”

The study’s findings include:

  • Voter turnout varied considerably among the countries studied, from as low as 50% in Algeria to as high as 72% in Palestine.
  • Citizens who had used networks to gain patronage, or “clientelist networks,” particularly those involving links to the government, increased the likelihood of individuals voting. The probability an individual would turn out if she had not received government patronage was 63%, compared to 71% for those who had. This represents an 8 percentage-point increase in likelihood to vote, a statistically significant difference.
  • The effect of patronage on voting appears to be mediated by income level.
    Among low-income citizens who benefited from patronage, the difference in propensity to vote for those was small, whereas it is larger and significant among high-income individuals. A possible explanation is that middle- and high-income citizens are likely to have better connections to politicians and bureaucrats and therefore more likely to gain materially from turning out to vote.
  • For those who have used patronage, the likelihood they will vote does not change according to the level of trust they have in the regime. This is consistent with the notion that their main motivation to vote is material gain rather than judgment on the regime’s performance.
  • Separately, the data showed that the probability of voting increased by 14% when citizens had a very good assessment of government economic performance, compared to those who had a bad assessment. This effect is even larger than the difference associated with having used patronage or not. It does not appear, however, that economic performance on its own increased a citizen’s likelihood to vote. Instead, positive evaluations of economic performance appear to lead to greater levels of trust in a regime, and it is this that increased peoples’ likelihood to vote. The researchers found that 79% of the total effect of “evaluation of government economic performance” on likelihood to vote was mediated through “trust in the regime.”

The findings have important implications for the increasing, but often complicated, trend of democratization in Arab countries, the authors state. “Although the economic needs and associated instabilities of transitioning Arab societies are by no means unknown, our analysis offers additional evidence of the need to create more favorable economic conditions and exposes some of the mechanisms by which perceptions of economic performance influence the degree to which ordinary men and women trust their government and consider it legitimate.” The evidence suggests that trust in governments and their economic performance is crucial for consolidating a democratic transition. However, governments in these countries often focus on mobilizing voters through dispensing patronage, a strategy that is not able to produce such civic disposition.

Related research

In a 2015 study published in Political Research Quarterly, “Minorities in the Middle East: Ethnicity, Religion and Support for Authoritarianism,” Ceren Belge of Concordia University and Ekrem Karakoc of Binghamton University challenge the common assumption that minority groups in authoritarian regimes generally prefer democratization. Analyzing the World Values Survey, the authors find that where religious minorities have enjoyed a historical legacy of institutional protection or relative wealth and privilege under such regimes, they may be more likely than majority groups to support them. For example, Christians in Egypt and Jordan are more likely to support autocracy by 45 and 54 percentage points respectively, compared with the Muslim majorities in these states. In contrast, Muslim linguistic minorities who enjoy no such institutional protection or historical advantage such as the Kurds in Turkey or Berbers in Morocco are significantly less likely to support authoritarianism.

Further, a 2015 study in Perspectives on Politics, “Anti-Americanism and Anti-Interventionism in Arabic Twitter Discourses,” analyzes data from Arabic Twitter from 2012 and 2013 to investigate the precise nature of anti-American attitudes in the region. The authors — Princeton’s Amaney A. Jamal and Robert O. Keohane, and Harvard’s David Romney and Dustin Tingley — found that anti-Americanism in the Middle East is driven more by political objections: Disliking America because of what it does, rather than disliking America for what it is and what it represents. Interestingly, similarly strong negative attitudes could also be detected toward another state seen to be interventionist in the region — Iran. The authors hypothesize that what is often seen as a strongly anti-American sentiment in the Middle East may better be characterized as “to a considerable extent, a fear of alien intrusions and hegemonic influence, from whatever source.”


Keywords: elections, Arab world, Middle East, turnout, voting, authoritarianism, participation, democracy, North Africa


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