We’ve been treated to a bevy of articles recently discussing the intersection of Islam and politics in the Middle East, all of which raise some troubling questions with surprising answers. The threshold question is how do such parties perform in democratic elections?
Amir Taheri answers that question, and it would seem, throughout the Middle East, that their popularity is not strong:
. . . [I]n Jordan's latest general election, held last month, the radical Islamic Action Front (IAF) suffered a rout. The IAF's share of the votes fell to five per cent from almost 15 per cent in the elections four years ago. The group, linked with the Muslim Brotherhood movement, managed to keep only six of its 17 seats in the National Assembly (parliament.) Its independent allies won no seats.
. . . The Islamists' defeat in the Jordanian elections confirms a trend that started years ago. Conventional wisdom was that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and lack of progress in the Israel-Palestine conflict, provide radical Islamists with a springboard from which to seize power through elections.
. . . So far, no Islamist party has managed to win a majority of the popular vote in any of the Muslim countries where reasonably clean elections are held. If anything, the Islamist share of the votes has been declining across the board.
In Malaysia, the Islamists have never crossed beyond the 11 per cent share of the popular vote. In Indonesia, the various Islamist groups have never collected more than 17 per cent.
The Islamists' share of the popular vote in Bangladesh declined from an all-time high of 11 per cent in the 1980s to around seven per cent in the late 1990s.
In Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, won the 2006 general election with 44 per cent of the votes, far short of the "crushing wave of support" it had promised.
Even then, it was clear that at least some of those who run on a Hamas ticket did not share its radical Islamist ideology. Despite years of misrule and corruption, Fatah, Hamas' secularist rival, won 42 per cent of the popular vote.
In Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won two successive general elections, the latest in July 2007, with 44 per cent of the popular vote. Even then, AKP leaders go out of their way to insist that the party "has nothing to do with religion".
"We are a modern, conservative, European-style party," AKP leader and Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, likes to repeat at every opportunity. In last July's general election, the AKP lost 23 seats and, with it, its two-third majority in the Grand National Assembly (parliament).
AKP's success in Turkey inspired Moroccan Islamists to create a similar outfit called Party of Justice and Development (PDJ). The PDJ sought support from AKP "experts" to prepare for last September's general election in Morocco.
And, yet, when the votes were counted, the PJD collected just over 10 per cent of the popular vote to win 46 of the 325 seats.
Islamists have done no better in neighboring Algeria. In the latest general election, held in May 2007, the two Islamist parties, Movement for a Peaceful Society (HMS) and Algerian Awakening (An Nahda) won just over 12 per cent of the popular vote.
In Yemen, possibly one of the Arab states where the culture of democracy has struck the deepest roots, elections in the past 20 years have shown support for Islamists to stand at around 25 per cent of the popular vote. In the last general election in 2003, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah) won 22 per cent.
Kuwait is another Arab country where holding reasonably fair elections has become part of the culture. In the general election last year, a well-funded and sophisticated Islamist bloc collected 27 per cent of the votes and won 17 of the 50 seats in the National Assembly.
In Lebanon's last general election in 2005, the two Islamist parties, Hezbollah (Party of God) and Amal (Hope) collected 21 per cent of the popular vote to win 28 of the 128 seats in the parliament.
And, this despite massive financial and propaganda support from Iran and electoral pacts with a Christian political bloc led by the pro-Tehran ex-General Michel Aoun.
Afghanistan . . . [has] held a series of elections since the fall of the Taliban in Kabul . . . By all standards, these have been generally free and fair elections, and thus valid tests of the public mood. In Afghanistan, Islamist groups, including former members of the Taliban, have managed to win around 11 per cent of the popular vote on the average . . .
Read the entire article. Thus, it would seem that Islamist movements have only limited support throughout the Middle East where reasonably free elections have occurred.
One of the other interesting aspects of using religion to justify a political party is the backlash when such parties take power and do not deliver – as is often the case since you can’t eat a holy book, nor do sacred texts generate electricity of serve to make water potable. Thus, in Iraq as pointed out in this article here, and now in Pakistan, when religious parties had in fact taken political control of some of the provicial areas, their failure to perform as promised is not being excused by the electorate, irrespective of their religious credentials:
In 2002, Ibrar Hussein voted for an Islamic takeover.
Fed up both with Pakistan's military-led government and with the mainstream, secular opposition, Hussein decided that religious leaders should be given a chance to improve living conditions in this sprawling frontier city.
But five years after support from people like Hussein propelled the Islamic parties to power in the provincial government -- and to their strongest-ever showing nationally -- the 36-year-old shopkeeper is rethinking his choice.
"You can see the sanitation system here," Hussein said, pointing with disgust to a ditch in front of his shop where a stream of greenish-brown sludge trickled by. "People were asking for clean water, and they didn't get it. We were very hopeful. But the mullahs did nothing for us."
Hussein's disenchantment is just one reason why, with Pakistan on the eve of fresh parliamentary elections, the religious parties are struggling to appeal to voters.
On the surface, at least, they have many things going for them: Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, is deeply unpopular. So, too, are his backers in Washington. The leading opposition politicians have had their opportunities before, and failed. Overall, frustration in Pakistan is running high.
And yet the Islamic parties seem poorly positioned to benefit from that frustration. Beset by bitter internal divisions, they have failed to come up with a unified campaign strategy. Their candidates, meanwhile, have to answer for a dubious record in governing North-West Frontier Province, their traditional base of support. And out on the stump, they are finding that anti-American sentiments are not quite as raw as they once were. . .
Read the article here.
Thus, in terms of democracy, Islamists would seem to have a limited appeal that tends to degrade further when they are actually voted into office. But the danger of Islamist parties is that, at least some seek only one democratic vote - the one to ensconce them into power. Or as Bernard Lewis put it, "one man, one vote, one time." That is what happened in Iran when they voted in a government structure that included the unique Khomeini construct of the Supreme Guide. Time will tell whether that holds true in the Gaza strip, where Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, took total control in a coup some months ago.
On a final note, it is interesting to note that the imposition of a theocracy in Iran has had an effect beyond just the political realm. The theocracy is doing a tremendous job of secularizing a large portion of its youth who comprise over 70% of its population.