Those in favor of an Iraq invasion argue that a regime change will be the first step in bringing democracy to the Middle East. But unnoticed in all the recent national focus on Iraq, recent elections in Morocco, Bahrain, Turkey and Pakistan indicate that democracy, albeit in small increments, has already begun arriving in that region and parts of Islamic South Asia.
The question is whether we are prepared for what those elections may bring. In many cases, these elections were precedent-setting. Morocco held its first transparent vote last month, and set aside 30 seats in the lower house expressly for women. Bahrain, with its first democratic elections in 30 years, included eight female candidates in the final round for parliament.
High turnout rates were another hopeful sign. More than half the eligible voters turned out in Turkey and Morocco. In some cases, solid turnout came despite considerable adversity. Leaders of the Shiite party in Bahrain announced an election boycott some days prior to the vote, and even though Shiite Muslims are the majority population, 53 percent of Bahrain’s voters participated. And despite violence that clouded elections in the Indian-ruled part of Kashmir, voter turnout was still 40 percent.
Nonetheless, democracy is far from breaking out across the two regions. For most of the Persian Gulf states, repressive monarchies are the norm and electoral farces are not limited to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein received 100 percent of the full-turnout vote. In Uzbekistan, a close US ally, President Islam Karimov, the nation’s leader since before its 1991 independence, engineered a referendum extending his term to 2007. In Pakistan, in April, Gen. Pervez Musharraf did much the same. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak conducts similar referenda, which have made him de facto president for life.
One of the biggest surprises of the recent elections was the success of the Islamists. In Pakistan’s parliamentary elections, the religious party finished third overall, winning 45 seats. Until now, the most it had ever won was ten. Turkey’s Islamists solidly swept the secular majority out of power. In Bahrain the Islamists took almost half of the parliament, and in Morocco they tripled their numbers from last year.
It’s important to note that these parties span the political gamut, from Pakistan’s radical variety, which openly supports implementation of Sharia (Islamic) law, to the moderate Turkish party, which has repeatedly promised to respect the country’s secular traditions. Reasons for the recent Islamist successes also vary.
Pakistan’s vote was as much an expression of dissent against Musharraf’s cooperation with the United States as it was opposition to his gutting of the constitution and the return of the military to primacy in politics. In Turkey, the Islamists cashed in on popular frustration with high unemployment and austerity plans imposed by the International Monetary Fund.
Turkey and Pakistan also offer case studies on how not to handle elections: Repressing disagreeable parties backfires. The Turkish government disqualified the leading Islamist candidate for prime minister, which sent his popularity skyrocketing. In Pakistan, Musharraf banned his two main opponents, former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, from running. This played perfectly into the hands of opponents who said he cared nothing for the will of the people.
In both cases, Washington looked the other way while its allies made their fateful mistakes. In the end, conservative, religious — and in Pakistan, staunchly anti-US — forces reaped the rewards.
If we are to be serious about promoting democracy, we must face certain realities. Toppling leaders has never engendered respect for the rule of law or liberalization of the political process. Moreover, tolerating repression by our allied leaders simply radicalizes and popularizes oppositional groups — be they secular, Islamists, anti-American or otherwise.
Open elections are more than a pre-requisite to true democracy; they also demystify opposition groups by eliminating their outsider status. If they win, these parties face the test: Produce substantive improvements in the quality of life, or take a walk. But the reverse is equally true. Mainstream government parties will only succeed in reversing the growing support for Islamists when they begin proposing solutions to the core concerns and frustrations now fueling Islamist popularity. Our own leaders would also do well to consider this as we address root causes of global terrorism and anti-American sentiments.