In the Arena

More Elections

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For those who haven’t had quite enough, thank you, of the vagaries of democracy, there are two fascinating, maybe crucial, elections coming down the pike in early 2009–in Israel and Iran. (Actually 3: the regional elections in Iraq, scheduled for late January will be pretty important, too.)

Now that Tzipi Livni has failed to form a government–those pesky ultra-orthodox parties play Chicago ward politics and her proposed bribes were insufficient–there will be elections in Israel in February or March. The current front-runner is the eternal Binyamin Netanyahu of Likud, who sets neoconservative hearts aflutter in the U.S…but who knows how this will shake out? Livni is much admired in Israel–and clean…but is she tough enough? (Does this sound familiar?) She faces competition not only from Bibi on the right but also from (Ehud) Barak on the left. If Netanyahu and Obama win, there could be some real tensions between the U.S. and Israel. If Netanyahu and McCain win–kaboom–there will be a much more aggressive, perhaps martial, posture toward Iran.

Speaking of Iran, there are intriguing reports today about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s health. He’s exhausted, it is said–a condition that might have something to do with the unpopularity of his domestic policies (30% inflation) and the probability that he will face a tough reelection fight next June. Ahmadinejad is likely to be challenged by the reformers–Mohammad Khatami, who proceeded Ahmadinejad and raised some hopes for reform, but didn’t have the power to do very much, may run again. And so may Ali-Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, another former president–and the candidate of the business elites (but considered corrupt by the public). More to the point, Ahmadinejad may be challenged by a candidate favored by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, whose support tends to be pivotal (his minions supported Ahmadinejad in the runoff against Rafsanjani last time, but there have been signs that Khamenei may have had second thoughts). As with all things Iranian, the import of this election is murky, although it may be provide an indication of how public opinion is trending. If the Supreme Leader really pushes a preferred candidate other than Ahmadinejad, the election may be very significant, indeed.

The Iraqi elections will be closely watched as an indication of the relative strength of the Shi’ite parties. Will Malaki’s Dawa Party gain strength? Is Muqtada al-Sadr still a force? And what about the Iranophilic Hakim family’s fate? Since these are regional elections, they’ll have only a tangential impact of the future of the Baghdad government. But they’ll be a leading indicator–and, if they proceed quietly, it will be another sign that our job in Iraq is getting closer to finished.