The coming year was meant to open with elections in two of the most fraught territories in the Middle East, but domestic political disputes in both mean it is likely to be postponed for a month in one, Iraq, and for potentially much longer in the other, the West Bank and Gaza.

Iraqis were meant to be the fist to go to the polls in 2010, with a parliamentary election scheduled for 16 January. However, the law needed for the election to go ahead was held up by disagreements over issues including voting rules for expatriate Iraqis and the distribution of seats in the ethnically diverse city of Kirkuk. It was eventually approved in early December but it is likely to be February or even March before any ballots are cast in Basra, Baghdad or Irbil.

“It is almost certain the elections will have to slip beyond the deadline of January,” said Christopher Prentice, former UK ambassador to Iraq in a speech in London on 25 November, a few days after the end of his two-year tenure in the post.

Representative poll

A significant level of violence is likely to continue in the run-up to the polling day, as some opposition militias try to derail the process, but there are still reasons for optimism. Sunnis will vote in large numbers, as this time they are not boycotting the poll as they did in 2005, which means a more representative parliament should be elected.

There are also signs that sectarianism has been declining in Iraq over the past year, with most mainstream politicians now having to at least make a show of appealing to Iraqi notions of nationalism, rather than narrow sectarianism, when campaigning.

In addition, a new system of voting means the electorate can vote for both a political alliance and an individual member of that alliance – something that should improve the quality of candidates. “There is an incentive for party managers to weed out the incompetent, unknown or corrupt,” said Prentice.

With no reliable opinion polls, predicting who will win is almost impossible. But no group is likely to gain an overall majority, and negotiations to form a coalition government could take until June to resolve, say observers. However, the result could be a more stable and representative government.

Palestinians would also benefit from a unified, stable government to end the schism between Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip and Fatah rule in the West Bank, but it is unlikely to emerge soon. Parliamentary and presidential elections planned for 24 January had to be -cancelled in November due to the continued refusal of Hamas to endorse the election. -Without Hamas’s co-operation, it would be impossible to carry out a meaningful poll in half of the Palestinian territories.

The delay will please the US and other Western powers that have been urging Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to reverse his pledge not to seek another term in office. Elections might go ahead later in the year, but in the interim there will be a moderate leader in Ramallah with whom the US is comfortable working.

Even so, the prospects for peace with Israel appear as remote as ever. Although efforts to restart negotiations between the Israelis and the -Palestinians are likely to be stepped up in the year ahead, there is little optimism that progress can be made with the hard-line government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in office.

The US is pushing all sides to return to the negotiating table, but for now any apparent concession from one side tends to be met with cynicism from the other. The administration of US President Barack Obama has been far more forthright than its predecessors in calling for the end of Israeli settlement activity in the Occupied Territories, but an announcement by Netanyahu on 25 November of a moratorium on any new buildings was quickly picked apart by Arab governments and media.

Critics pointed out that the moratorium would only last for 10 months, only covered the West Bank, and excluded East Jerusalem and some public buildings such as schools and synagogues. In addition, any construction work already under way would be completed.

In the absence of any significant compromise, Iran remains the largest potential political flashpoint in the region.

George Mitchell, President Obama’s special envoy for Middle East peace, has acknowledged the limitations of the Israeli move, but insists it is still a positive sign.

“It falls short of a full settlement freeze, but it is more than any Israeli government has done before, and can help move toward agreement between the parties,” he said at a briefing in Washington on 25 November. “We believe the steps announced by the prime minister [Netanyahu] are -significant and could have substantial impact on the ground.”

It is not just Palestinians and Iraqis who are due to get to vote in or throw out their representatives next year. The region may have an unenviable reputation when it comes to democracy, but the citizens of at least three other countries in the Middle East and North Africa are due to elect representatives in the year ahead, and two more could yet join them.

Sudan is due to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in early April, although an ongoing dispute over the results of a census carried out last year could still disrupt the timing. Politicians from the predominantly Christian south have complained that the census undercounted the area’s population.

Egypt and Bahrain will both follow with -legislative elections in November. While Islamist parties are likely to maintain or even increase their influence in both, the tight hold on power by the ruling elites in the two countries means there are unlikely to be any fundamental changes.

Even while these new elections are being planned, the results of previous elections have been causing problems elsewhere.

It took Lebanese politicians five months to agree on the formation of a unity government, following parliamentary elections in June 2009, although the country now appears ready to enjoy a period of peace and stability.

That is not the case in nearby Jordan, where King Abdullah II dissolved the National Assembly on 23 November, just two years into its four-year term. While no official reason was given, observers say it was carried out because of the government’s inability to get much-needed legislation passed by parliament.

No date has yet been set for fresh elections, but they are likely to happen some time in 2010. Until then, the government will rule by decree.

This is the second time the king has dissolved parliament since he came to the throne in 1999. His record is not quite as active as Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah of Kuwait, who has dissolved parliament three times since he took office in 2006, most recently in March 2009.

There is a possibility of more elections in Kuwait next year if the National Assembly and the government cannot find a way to work together. However, there are signs that they may start to co-operate more, if only to avoid the prospect of elections.

Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Ahmed al-Sabah appeared before parliament on 8 December to answer questions about allegations of financial irregularities. Previously, ministers have refused to appear before parliament to answer difficult questions over corruption and mismanagement, and parliament has retaliated by blocking government legislation.

Sheikh Nasser’s appearance was the first time a senior member of a GCC royal family has submitted themselves to such parliamentary questioning. A day earlier, on 7 December, MPs had threatened to file a motion of no-confidence in the prime minister if he failed to appear before them to respond to their questions about alleged financial misconduct.

If the new-found climate of co-operation between the executive and parliament does break down and political stasis returns, the emir is likely to again dissolve parliament. However, he has hinted that, should this happen, he may simply rule by decree for an extended period rather than call new elections.

The election that has provoked the greatest fallout is the presidential election in Iran in June 2009. The result, which gave President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad an improbably clear victory, continues to reverberate on the streets of Tehran and beyond. There have been sporadic but persistent protests in Iran’s major cities ever since the results were announced. While the authorities have imprisoned large numbers of protesters and put more than a hundred opponents on trial, there is no sign that the opposition to President Ahmadinejad will die down in 2010.

The domestic opposition to Ahmadinejad’s rule could prove more problematic for the president than the international opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Western governments have little faith in the country’s pledges that it is only interested in developing nuclear facilities to produce power.

Elections planned for 2010
Country Type Expected date
Iraq Parliamentary January / February
Sudan Parliamentary April
Presidential April
Bahrain Parliamentary November
Egypt Parliamentary November
Jordan Parliamentary Not yet announced
West Bank / Gaza Parliamentary Postponed from January with no new date set
West Bank / Gaza Preidential Postponed from January with no new date set
Source: MEED

Sanctions threat

Negotiations between Tehran and a group of the UK, China, France, Russia, the US and Germany will continue in the coming year, but with little likelihood of a meaningful agreement to resolve the dispute. Further sanctions could well be imposed, although Russia and China are almost certain not to allow any sanctions to be endorsed by the UN.

In the absence of any significant compromise, Iran remains the largest potential political flashpoint in the region.

Tehran has also been accused of involvement in the ongoing, low-level fighting in Yemen, which has been described by some as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The potential for the instability in Yemen to cross into neighbouring countries was made clear in early November 2009 when Yemeni rebels were reported to have captured some ground in Saudi Arabia. Sporadic clashes between Houthi rebels in the north of Yemen and the Saudi army just across the ill-defined border continued in the following weeks.

There have been increasing calls in the US and elsewhere for the West to pay more attention to what is happening in Yemen, for fear it may go the same route as Somalia and Afghanistan. But people in Oman, which also borders Yemen, are stoical about the potential for the conflict to spill over into their country.

“They have been fighting there for years,” says one Omani who lives in the port town of Sohar. “Why should we worry this time?”

That weary familiarity with long-running problems will be common to many other parts the Middle East in 2010. While Lebanon remains relatively quiet, Iraq, Iran and the Occupied Territories are likely to dominate the political year ahead.