Electoral Process: 4 Observations from a Local Election

The month of June will focus on Electoral Process, Elections, and Election Politics.  The Arab Awakening has prompted a series of new elections in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya–as well as the renewed discussion of electoral process in others.  Last year the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia voted on whether or not women may vote in the future.  In other parts of the world, like in PITAPOLICY’s home country, the USA, 2012 elections dominate the headlines as both presidential candidates rally around parties and Congressional elections organize their primaries.  On a whole, lessons learned will be shared as pita-consumers compare and contrast election, voter, and party experiences.

Earlier this week, Nadia Hannout described the grassroots, civic participation in organizing the Muslim Brotherhood in part one of her essay.  Today, we will review how a political campaign in the US shares similar moments and obstacles during candidate elections in countries, like Egypt. 

Electoral Process: New Jersey Congressional Democratic Party Primary

By: Mehrunisa Qayyum

“Walking down the streets of Paterson, it’s clear that New Jersey Arab Americans take pride in participating in the political process. That sense of ownership and responsibility to shape one’s political future is making New Jersey the standard of Arab American engagement in US politics,” described, Omar Tewfik, a volunteer for Bill Pascrell’s Congressional campaign for the 9th District.  Omar Tewfik (@oztewfik), Emily Manna (@emilymanna), Omar Baddar (@omarbaddar), Salim Alchurbaji, Omar Saeed and myself decided to volunteer the last weekend before the June 5th Democratic Primary.  Even though the New Jersey election is completely outside of the geographic scope of Arab transition economies and their elections, the four observations I gathered are completely within the organizational scope of Arab transition economies and their elections.

The Primaries are held for each party: Republican and Democratic.  The winners of those primaries face off in the final election in November.  Typically, since August recess allows Congress and Senate to take a break, the campaigning efforts intensify around Labor Day weekend (early September).

Observation #1: Electoral Process–Tallying Religious Groups 

The electoral process will ultimately track and tally religious groups as candidates become more competitive and elections get tighter.  As the parliamentary elections in Tunisia and Egypt received intense scrutiny, I realized that we tend to focus more on predicting outcomes rather than scrutinizing the steps that serve as the front-end of the electoral process.   When the Muslim Brotherhood and the Al Nahda party won large support, media outside of the actual countries sounded alarms.  The punditry about Islamist politics erupted…again.

Similarly, in the small state of New Jersey, religious undertones also assumed a role in which candidate, Bill Pascrell or Steve Rothman, would win the Democratic primary in New Jersey’s 9th District.  Bill Pascrell received support from many Middle Eastern American and Muslim voters in New Jersey’s Clifton and Patterson neighborhoods because of his commitment to challenge surveillance of mosques.  Steve Rothman appealed to the large Jewish American base in the 9th District.  In the end, Pascrell won the tight race earlier this evening.

Observation #2: Who Is Endorsing Whom in Elections

Before the voter–American, Egyptian, Tunisian, etc– casts the vote, they want to know who is endorsing whom.  American media plays a role in endorsing candidates.  I remember how we enthusiastically touted during our canvassing efforts to Arab American and Turkish American voters that two NJ papers, New Jersey Star Ledger and Bergen Record, endorsed Pascrell to persuade the undecided voters.  For a more robust discussion on the role of Egyptian media in election politics, please see Adel Iskander’s piece for the Huffington Post.

Observation #3:Unions

Electoral politics and economic interests converge with unions.  Where do the unions and labor movements stand?  Independent from the media endorsement and other influential politicians, labor groups play a significant role in gauging which candidate will fare better–especially when the economy is in a bind (like the high unemployment rates in the US, Egypt, and Tunisia.)

Observation #4: Exploiting Groups

Electoral politics succeed in exposing who is exploiting which group and why.  A few months ago, Egyptians raised concerns about campaign methods.  One method, “bumvertising”, was described as exploitative.  In the US, “bumvertising” raised a similar issue regarding the practice of hiring homeless men to advertise for products, services, and people.  Some argue that such methods raise awareness about the homelessness problem.  The same may be said about paying poor Egyptians to wear billboards.  (If anyone has the image depicting this, PITAPOLICY would appreciate the hyperlink!) This is not that different from buying an election vote.

Ironically, both candidates were seasoned politicians who received support by heavy hitters: David Axlelrod from the Obama Administration chimed in for Rothman.  Former President Bill Clinton chimed in for Bill Pascrell.  However, depending on who wins, signals what might be expected for the next round of elections.   But this is where the similarities end.  Look at Egypt.  On June 16th, runoff elections will begin.  Yet, before the final voting, protests call for the removal of certain candidates, like Ahmed Shafiq.

A final note: Pascrell’s win signifies the first time a candidate beat out a “political machine” candidate while receiving  an overwhelming Middle Eastern-American and Muslim-American minority group vote.  Not only did these two groups voice their support and act to vote, they represented an outcomes based event while becoming involved at the input stage of electoral politics.  The Pascrell campaign  organized the first and second generation strata of voters among the most recent immigrant groups prior to election day.  That effort bodes well in the next stage of electoral politics for November…and shows that generational efforts might be needed in countries undergoing transitional economic and political changes.  Electoral politics is not determined by the candidates running; rather the process is about the engagement level of voters and organizing around their political and economic interests.

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