Want to win votes in a Muslim country in Asia? Keep your Islamic agenda hidden. This is the lesson taught by recent elections in Malaysia and Pakistan, among other Islamic nations. In the Malaysian parliamentary election last month, the group known as PAS (Parti Islam se-Malaysia) increased the number of its seats from six to 23 while the governing National Front, led by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi suffered its heaviest defeat since 1969. There were many reasons for this. However, the most important might have been Mr. Badawi’s decision to play the Islamic card while PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang went in the opposite direction. Waving the pan-Islamist flag, Mr. Badawi promised to draw Malaysia closer to an ill-defined Muslim world.
By contrast, Mr. Awang opened his campaign by abandoning the principal plank of PAS’s ideology: the demand for an Islamic state. “We are not calling for an Islamic state,” he said. “All we want is clean government and social justice." Mr. Awang also dropped his party’s plan to force women to wear the hijab and agreed to allow some women, and some non-Muslims, to become candidates on his party’s slate.
To many Western commentators, the February general election in Pakistan had been a defeat for President Pervez Musharraf. The real losers, however, were the Islamists. Parties linked to the Taliban and al Qaeda saw their share of the votes slashed to about 3% from almost 11% in the previous general election. The largest coalition of the Islamist parties, the United Assembly for Action (MMA), lost control of the Northwest Frontier Province—the only one of Pakistan’s four provinces it governed. The winner in the province was the secularist National Awami Party (NAP).
So far, no Islamist party has won a majority of the popular vote in any of the Muslim countries where reasonably clean elections are held. Often, the Islamist share of the votes has declined. In Malaysia, the Islamists have never gone beyond 11% of the popular vote. In Indonesia, the various Islamist groups have never collected more than 17%. The Islamists’ share of the popular vote in Bangladesh declined from an all-time high of 11% in the 1980s to around 7% in the late 1990s. Even in once-Taliban dominated Afghanistan, Islamist groups, including former members of the Taliban, have managed to win only around 11% of the popular vote on the average.
In the Middle East and Arab nations Islamists don’t fair much better.
In Iran’s general election last month, candidates who toned down their Islamic rhetoric generally did better than those who clung to old slogans of religious fanaticism. Even then, only 46% of those eligible actually voted. In most cities, turnout was below 30%; in Tehran it was just 19%. Because only government-approved candidates were allowed, there wasn’t much of a choice. Nevertheless, wherever possible voters picked those least identified with Islamism.
In last November’s general election in Jordan, the Islamic Action Front suffered a rout, with its share of the votes falling to 5% from almost 15% in elections four years ago. The group, linked with the Islamic Brotherhood, kept only six of its 17 seats in the National Assembly. Its independent allies won no seats.
In Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas—the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—won the 2006 general election with 44% of the votes, far short of the “crushing wave of support” it had promised.
In Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won two successive general elections, the latest in July 2007, with 44% of the popular vote. Even then, AKP leaders go out of their way to insist that the party "has nothing to do with religion.”In last July’s general election, the AKP lost 23 seats.
The AKP’s success in Turkey inspired Moroccan Islamists to create a similar outfit called Party of Justice and Development (PDJ). The PDJ sought support from AKP “experts” in last September’s general election in Morocco. Yet when the votes were counted, the PDJ collected 10% of the popular vote, winning 46 of the 325 seats.
Islamists have done no better in Algeria. In the general election, held in May 2007, the two Islamist parties, Movement for a Peaceful Society and Algerian Awakening, won less than 12% of the popular vote.
In Yemen, one of the Arab states where the culture of democracy has struck the deepest roots, elections in the past 20 years have shown support for Islamists to stand at around 25%. In the last general election in 2003, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform won 22%.
Kuwait is another Arab country where the holding of reasonably fair elections has become part of the national culture. In the general election in 2006, a well-funded and sophisticated Islamist bloc collected 27% of the votes and won 17 of the 50 seats in the National Assembly. In the general election expected within the next weeks, Islamists are expected to do worse.
In Lebanon’s last general election in 2005, the two Islamist parties, Hezbollah (Party of God) and Amal (Hope) collected 21% of the popular vote and 28 of the 128 seats in the parliament.
Why do Islamists fail to do better in elections in Muslim countries? There are many answers. The one I prefer comes from Turkish President Abdullah Gùl: “Most Muslims like to live in an Islamic society with a secular state.”
Mr. Taheri is author of "L'Irak: Le Dessous Des Cartes" (Editions Complexe, 2002).