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The Other Elections: Islamist Parties Winning Big

by Rami G. Khouri

In all five nations, opposition Islamist groups won or made significant gains
(PNS) AMMAN -- Interested in political realities in the Middle East? Forget Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Iran, oil and terror for a moment, and ponder instead the important lessons from the elections that took place in the last six weeks in Algeria, Morocco, Bahrain, Turkey, and Pakistan.

The election results and their internal dynamics should be sobering news for ruling Arab governments and political elites, and also for the United States, Israel, and their friends in the area. After losing credibility broadly in recent years, Islamist parties made dramatic gains in five very different countries.

Without exaggerating these countries' common factors or their significant differences, some striking recurring patterns deserve attention. Three factors stand out: the official results, the real balance of political forces in society not reflected in the official results, and the growing gaps between governments and their people.

First, the official results: in all five elections, opposition Islamist groups either won outright or achieved significant gains. The biggest victory was by the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, giving it a parliamentary majority and control of the next government. In Bahrain, the Islamists won 24 of the 40 elected seats in the 80-member parliament (the other 40 seats are appointed by the king).

In Pakistan, the Islamists scored big victories in two of the four national provinces and should share power in a national coalition government. In Algeria, the municipal elections saw the Islah and other Islamist parties hold their ground behind the resurgent National Liberation Front. In Morocco, as the government coalition maintained control of parliament the biggest gains were made by the Islamist Justice and Development Party, and Islamist seats jumped from 14 to 42.

Second, the real balance of political forces in society is very different from what the elections revealed. Islamists and other opposition groups tend to enjoy even greater public support than was reflected in the voting. That's due to several reasons: governments had banned some opposition parties (Turkey, Algeria); electoral districts were gerrymandered to restrict opposition forces and exaggerate pro-government support (most of the Third and Arab worlds, all of Chicago); states unilaterally usurped power from legislatures and shifted it to the presidency-by-coup (Pakistan); or governments arranged some voting processes to help their preferred candidates.

Such practices caused some leading Islamist and leftist opposition groups to boycott the polls (Bahrain and Morocco, and Jordan five years ago). If all political forces had participated in truly free and fair elections, the opposition Islamists would have won much greater victories and pro-government forces would have been more severely discredited.

Third, the election results point to a large and growing gap between government policies and public opinion. Nevertheless, we should applaud these countries for self-confidently holding their elections on time, despite irregularities or volatile regional events. This is the whole point of holding elections -- to gauge the pulse of the citizenry, and to give every citizen a real sense of empowerment in being able to express an opinion, elect leaders, shape policies and hold leaders accountable.

Countries that absorb such strong showings by opposition Islamist and leftist parties and respect majority wishes are stronger, more mature and more secure for going through the process.

What is the accurate combination of local, regional and international issues that motivates so many voters to choose opposition groups and to reject their incumbent ruling elites?

My own guess is that local issues predominate. Note that most Islamist parties use the words "justice" and "reform" in their names and slogans. But the impact of American and Israeli policies should not be underestimated. In three of these five countries where anti-government forces scored big (Pakistan, Turkey, and Bahrain), there is a very strong American military presence, and equally powerful political ties with Washington.

We also have our first NATO member (Turkey) governed by an Islamist party. Voters concerned about local issues of social justice and economic development may also be saying that they would like the United States to be a partner and friend, rather than a self-imposed lone arbiter of regional orders, legitimate regimes or security norms.

We Arabs -- and Americans, too -- should listen well and carefully interpret what plain folks around here are saying as they speak with passion and clarity at the ballot box. The beauty of democracy is that if we screw up by ignoring people's views, we usually get a second chance to listen again, when the citizenry speaks forcefully. It has just done that in Algeria, Morocco, Pakistan, Bahrain and Turkey.

Rami G. Khouri is a political scientist and columnist for the Jordan Times

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Albion Monitor November 5 2002 (

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