Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine
Ramadan / Shawwal 1423 H
December 2002
Volume 15-12 No : 192
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Globe Watch


It's Time for Justice and Reforms


It's Time for Justice and Reforms

Islamist parties have scored big victories in the recent elections in Algeria, Morocco, Bahrain, Turkey
and Pakistan indicating that the Muslims here have lost faith in the elite secular parties

By M. H. Lakdawala

election in turkeyThe elections that took place recently in Algeria, Morocco, Bahrain, Turkey and Pakistan revealed a paradigm shift. In many of these countries, the elections were precedent setting.

Morocco held its first fully transparent vote last month, and while many Arab nations block women from office, Morocco set aside 30 seats in the lower house for women, thereby ensuring their inclusion in politics.

Bahrain, which sent its citizens to the polls for the first time in 30 years, likewise saw a small step forward for women’s political involvement. None was ultimately seated in parliament, but eight women candidates made it to the final round. The elections marked the first time that Bahraini women contested for office and voted in a parliamentary race. A voter turnout of more than 50 per cent in all four countries was also a hopeful sign. By comparison, the last mid-term elections in the US saw only 36 per cent participation. The results reveal much about the political sentiments and forces that may be sweeping the grassroots of the pre-dominantly Islamic Middle East countries and parts of Asia.

The actual results of all five elections saw opposition Islamist groups either win outright or achieve 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 seats in the 80-member Parliament (the king appoints the other 40 seats).

In Pakistan, Islamists scored big victories in two of the four national provinces and should share power in a coalition government. An alliance of religious parties finished third overall, taking 45 parliamentary seats. In previous years, the most they have ever won was 10. 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 governing coalition maintained control of Parliament, the biggest gains were made by the Islamist Justice and Development Party.

The real balance of political forces in society is very different from what the elections revealed, because Islamists and other opposition groups tend to enjoy much greater public support than was reflected in the voting, due to several reasons: governments had banned some opposition parties (Turkey, Algeria), electoral districts were gerrymandered to exaggerate pro-government support, 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 groups to boycott the polls (Bahrain and Morocco). If all political forces had participated in truly free and fair elections, the Islamists would have won bigger victories.

Why have Islamist parties surged so dramatically after losing credibility throughout the region in recent years? Local issues predominate (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 (Pakistan, Turkey, and Bahrain) there is a very strong American military presence, and equally powerful political ties with Washington.

These parties are, however, far from uniform. Politically they span the gamut from radical to moderate. The more radical variety, such as those in Pakistan and Morocco, openly support the implementation of Sharia or Islamic law. The more moderate ones, such as that in Turkey, are committed to respecting their countries’ secular traditions.

Although no single pattern fits all four countries, the results in each of the elections gave religiously oriented parties far larger margins than expected. The reasons for their recent success also vary. In the case of Pakistan, the vote for the Islamists was as much an indicator of dissent against President General Pervez Musharraf’s involvement with the US war in Afghanistan as it was a sign of opposition to his gutting of the nation’s Constitution and the increasing encroachment of the military in politics.

In the case of the Islamists, religious piety and a conservative social agenda alone will not sustain their support without real advancement in the quality of life for average citizens. But the reverse is no less true. Secular and government forces will only be able to siphon off the support of the Islamists and other oppositional parties when there is a concerted effort to address the core concerns that drive increasing numbers of voters to the fringe.

Most Islamist parties have been gradually gaining supporters for years as secular parties have failed to solve grinding economic and social problems. But their sudden gain in votes in recent elections in Pakistan, Bahrain, Morocco and Turkey is being viewed as a sign that voters - at least in those few countries that actually allow free elections - want to assert pride in their faith to the outside world.

“The population in Turkey, Pakistan or in Morocco did not vote for Islamic parties just because they believe they have the capacity to solve social and economic problems,” Muhammad Darif, a professor of political science at the Hassan II University Law School at Mohammedia, Morocco, said in an interview to New York Times.

“Arab and Muslim populations think the war against terrorism is nothing but a war against Islam, the culture of Islam, the Arab culture,” Professor Darif added. The Islamist parties have been able to exploit this. “The government’s bad management and poor performance gave the chance to the religious groups to operate and get support,” said Sawsan Shair, a columnist for the daily Al Ayam in Bahrain. Their members have been operating for almost 10 years - building clinics, sponsoring orphans, distributing aid and food and medicine.

The same is true to an extent in Pakistan, although there, hostility towards the American presence in the region, and Pervez Musharraf’s support for Washington’s campaign against terrorism, were open campaign issues for the religiously oriented parties. “Issues of identity and Islamic pride are there, and the war on terrorism was a contributing factor,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of political science and international relations at the Lahore University of Management Science. But he and others asserted that it was not the main factor.

“There is a deep sense of betrayal among all Muslim people that their elites, their governments, their institutions have all failed them,” says Rais. People have moved away from the mainstream parties hoping that the religious political parties will provide them with a better alternative.

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