Two Cheers for Democracy

7 November 2002

Two Cheers for Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

One of the reasons that democracy is so rare in the swath of Muslim countries from Pakistan to Morocco is that both the local regimes and the United States are terrified that the Islamist extremists would come to power if there were free elections. Two recent elections seem to support that proposition.

Start with Turkey, whose voters have just given an Islamic party an overwhelming majority in parliament: 363 seats out of 550. Yet the leader of the victorious Justice and Development Party (AKP), Recep Tayyip Erdogan, cannot legally become prime minister, having been banned from running in the election because he has been convicted of inciting religious hatred.

In 1995, Erdogan proclaimed that “the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are waiting for the Turkish people to rise up.” He did four months in jail in 1998 for reciting before an excited crowd an old poem with the lines “Mosques are our barracks, minarets our bayonets, domes our helmets, the believers our soldiers.” Secular Turkey has laws against that sort of talk in public, and the army acts against politicians who stray across the line if the courts won’t. But would it dare to remove a party that has just won almost two-thirds of the seats in parliament?

Cut to Pakistan, where last month’s parliamentary election was supposed to drape a democratic veil over the rule of General Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in 1999. The polling was clean by Pakistani standards, but the usual machinations before the vote delivered 77 seats to the newly created pro-military party, comfortably ahead of the 62 seats won by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan :People’s Party (PPP). The only surprise was that the conservative tribal voters along the Afghan border gave 48 seats to the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six small Islamist parties.

Now Mrs Bhutto’s PPP has created the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy with 14 smaller parties — and has formed a coalition with the MMA that has a clear majority in parliament. If Musharraf doesn’t step in to stop him, Maulana Fazlur Rahman of the MMA, who once urged “holy war” against US President George W. Bush and regards the Taliban as his friends, may soon become prime minister of the world’s newest nuclear power.

That’s about it for democracy in the Middle East, apart from the gallant experiment in little Qatar and a few halfway-democratic countries like Iran and Jordan. It’s rare, it’s precarious, and it produces bad results. Or so it would seem.

Rare it is, and Pakistan’s democracy has always been precarious, but the ‘bad results’ accusation is just not true. The alliance between Mrs Bhutto and the Islamists was a purely tactical move to discredit the dictator’s election by forcing him to show his hand, and it has succeeded. On Thursday Musharraf postponed the opening of parliament by a week to give his own tame politicians of the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) — commonly known as ‘the king’s party’ — more time to put together an alternative coalition.

If Pakistan were to get real democracy, the PPP and the MMA would never be caught in bed together, nor would the radical Islamists ever win power in a free election. Pakistan’s problem is not democracy and it is not Islamism either. It is the corruption of the politicians, the ambition of the generals, and the sheer poverty and ignorance of so much of the population.

Turkey is a richer and better educated country with a much stronger democratic tradition, but the economy has been in deep trouble for a long time now, and at each national election for the past twelve years the voters have lurched in a different direction in a desperate search for a solution. Having run through all the other alternatives, they have now picked the ‘Islamic’ party, but Erdogan doesn’t have much room for manoeuvre, and he knows it.

The AKP’s almost two-thirds majority in parliament does not signify a massive wave of Islamist radicalism in Turkey. Only parties that get over ten percent of the vote actually win seats in the Turkish parliament, and in this election every other party was eliminated except the Republican People’s Party (founded by Ataturk himself in 1923), which got many extra votes from people who wanted to make a statement about secularism. So the AKP’s victory was won with less than a third of the popular vote — and polls suggest that only one in four AKP voters is actually a keen Islamist.

AKP supporters call themselves ‘Muslim democrats’, like the Christian Democrats who flourish in many European parliaments, and there is no reason to disbelieve them. Erdogan is determined to defend secularism, back the US alliance, and join the European Union — or at least he says he is, and that’s good enough, because he will be held to it by both the public and the army.

If ex-communists can turn into legitimate democratic leaders in Eastern Europe, then former radical Islamists can take the democratic road too. ‘Islamism’ is a political response to oppression, and can be profoundly anti-democratic. Islam is a religion, and entirely compatible with democracy. What the Middle East needs is more democracy, not less.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 10. (“The AKP’s….Islamist”) Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.