Charles Kurzman and Iqbal Naqvi have an article in the Journal of Democracy (April 2010, Vol. 21, No. 2) titled “Do Muslims Vote Islamic?” The central question is: “If Muslim majority countries hold free and fair (or at least competitive) elections, should we expect Islamic parties to dominate such contests?” Citing the usual past cases in which Islamist parties swept the vote (Algeria 1991, Hamas 2006, etc.), the authors contest the idea that free elections in Muslim polities will yield Islamist victories. They draw the following conclusions from 160 elections in which Islamists participated:
- “[E]lectoral participation by Islamic parties is far from unusual” “Over the past forty years, 89 parliamentary elections in 21 countries have included one or more Islamic parties … [S]ince the end of the Cold War two decades ago, this participation has accelerated. More than three elections per year have been contested by Islamic parties during this period, compared with fewer than two elections per year in previous decades.”
- “[T]he electoral performance of Islamic parties has been generally unimpressive” “In the 89 elections that Islamic parties have contested during the past generation, these parties have typically received only a small fraction of the vote … Across all 89 parliamentary elections of the past forty years in which an Islamic party participated, the median performance was 7.3 percent of the vote and 6 percent of the seats. If we combine the tallies of all the Islamic parties that participated in a given election, the median Islamic-party performance is 15.5 percent of votes and 15 percent of seats — not an insignificant portion, but hardly the lion’s share. The presence of Islamic parties did not substantially increase voter turnout, which further suggests the relative lack of voter enthusiasm for them. When turnout was higher, this did not boost the percentage of seats that Islamic parties won … Moreover, of the 32 Islamic parties that competed more than once over the past two decades, four increased their representation by 5 percent or more, six decreased their representation by the same margin, and most have not changed much.” The authors conclude that elections won by Islamists have tended to be “breakthrough elections” (a country’s first free and fair elections) and that “after the breakthrough, Islamic parties fared worse,” and that “in general, the more routine elections become, the worse Islamic parties do in them.”
- “[I]n those Muslim-majority countries where elections were freest, Islamic parties performed worse.” The authors use four measures of electoral fairness to calculate that “the most successful Islamic party won a median of 9.8 percent of parliamentary seats in freer elections, and 14.0 percent of seats in less-free elections (Kelley’s “Quality of Elections” variable, Freedom House’s “political rights” scale, Polity IV’s “Electoral Competitiveness” and Kurzman and Naqvi’s own “Electoral Irregularities” variable (to account for “systematic” irregularities such as “significant governmental barriers to Islamic political parties, such as prevention from registration as an official party, limitation on the number of candidates permitted to run for parliament, harassment of candidates…or manipulation of vote counts”)). The median for all Islamic parties in a given election was 11.5 percent under freer conditions and 15.9 percent under less-free conditions.” Using the Kurzman/Naqvi category (which only looks at Islamic parties) “the median percentage of seats won by Islamic parties in freer elections was almost 10 percentage points lower than the percentage won in less-free elections.” The authors note that this carries across both Arab and non-Arab polities, but include two caveats: (1) that “the freeness of elections in a given country may be directly related to the government’s estimate of how popular Islamic parties are there” and (2) “In a number of countries with semi-free elections, Islamic parties run candidates only in a limited number of districts out of fear that running in more will make the government nervous and lead to stepped-up repression.”
- “Islamic parties have (relative to their starting point) liberalized their stances significantly over the past several decades.” The authors construct a “platform timeline” that, by their estimation, shows that shows “slight shifts in a liberalizing direction.” Kurzman and Naqvi note parties in their survey that have dropped support for shari’ah, jihad and developed “secular justifications for democracy”. They note that these parties remain “highly conservative” and that some parties have grown more so over time.
Kurzman and Naqvi’s article is interesting given the very strong belief among many in the west (especially policy makers) that Islamists are sure to win free elections in Muslim polities. Kurzman and Naqvi note that in places where significant parts of the electorate believes that “good government” can only come by way of shari’ah (specifically Pakistan and Bangladesh), Islamist parties do not always do well. This recalls the comments made by Shadi Hamid and here regarding why voters chose not to vote for Islamists (or chose to do so). The authors note important factors, such as competition from more conservative Islamist factions (that eschew electoral politics out of principal; but they also note that the World Values Survey shows that Muslims are as likely as non-Muslims to support democracy) and regime obstruction. Islamist parties exhibit an “overall trend toward publicly embracing global norms of democracy and human rights”.
The authors do not question the institutional and ideological sincerity of Islamists’ public statements and they do not follow the parties into parliament or examine their intra-party discourses regarding liberalization or other factions (what’s behind the platform pamphlets?). The authors also report only on Islamist activities, without considering the performance of non-Islamist parties. If Islamists perform relatively poorly, who performs well — Marxists, Trotskyites, nationalists, democratic socialists, non-desrcript populists? The answer is especially relevant (and interesting) where countries without entrenched ruling-regimes are concerned, or in countries that do but have vigorous non-Islamist oppositions. How do Islamists fare relative to non-Islamists (while considering alternative ideologies)? The article is nevertheless an interesting addition to the continuing debate over the “risks” associated with democratization and liberalization in predominantly Muslim polities.