Islamist parties in a democratic context

Daily Times, April 22, 2005
COMMENT: Islamist parties in a democratic context —William B Milam

I hope we are not witnessing in Pakistan the Middle Eastern scenario in which the non-religious parties are so marginalised that the Islamist parties become the only real opposition despite the limited appeal of their agenda. That is easily avoided by a little long-term thinking on the part of the government

It has been over six months since my most recent op-ed in Daily Times. Those few readers who have noticed this gap suspect, no doubt, that the long layoff must have been by popular demand. But it was (I swear) my own choice. Op-ed fatigue is the clinical diagnosis, I think — on the part of the writer, not the readers.

Rested and refreshed after six months respite from op-ed rigors, and recharged with topics that I want to write about, I now venture back into (not below, I hope) the fold of Daily Times. The first of these topics is whether Islamist political parties fit in comfortably with democratic political structures. The question really is whether the Islamist agenda is compatible with democracy. A recent Washington think-tank meeting managed to bring it all together for me so that I can extrapolate to the Pakistani context.

In the background of any discussion of Islamism in democratic politics is the implicit judgement that Islamist parties, in general, have a broad civilisational agenda that aims at fundamental change in society and rejects “enlightened” or any other kind of moderation. They seek political power in order to implement their agenda. Most other political parties have less cosmic agendas — political, economic, or development programmes they intend to implement — but they do not intend to bring about changes in the fundamental character of the state or the society.

This means that the inclusion of Islamist parties in a democratic political structure is a tremendous challenge because their civilisational agenda makes democratic politics of compromise and give-and-take very difficult. Yet, ironically, it is the Islamist parties which appear to be the flat-out advocates of democracy. Non-religious parties are often linked to an undemocratic state or government in some way or other, and inadvertently often become identified with an undemocratic order.

There are two interrelated, second-order questions: will the civilisational agenda of Islamist parties be modified in the give-and-take of real democratic politics; and, if not, is there a danger of a majoritarian compulsion on that agenda if an Islamist party gains a majority of votes and is elected democratically in a Muslim country. In other words, will the Islamists, if they are freely and fairly elected, force their civilisational agenda on the polity of a country, or will their agenda be modified in the spirit of democratic compromise.

I have the firm impression that analysis of these questions has to be situational; each case is different. Nonetheless, there are a few general principles that seem to apply across the board. First, we can expect the Islamist parties to be strongly in favour of procedural democracy. It is in their interests. Through the coalitions and compromises that other parties in democratic politics are used to making to get and keep power, the Islamists gain ground and respectability.

Second, their participation in procedural democracy is usually not sufficient to change their agenda. The more important questions which will determine whether they are open to changing their agenda are whether they feel that they can ultimately achieve and keep power by themselves, and whether they are receptive to different ideas to attain power.

Beyond these general principles, there are few conclusive answers to the questions that Islamists’ participation in democracy raises. The one Islamist party that has come to power by election is the JDP in Turkey, and that is still a work in progress. The JDP did modify its agenda, and its rhetoric, before it came to power, and that agenda appears to be continuing to evolve as the JDP deals with the realities of governing.

The example of JDP in Turkey points to another general principle. The critical element is competition, powerful competition, and plenty of it. Islamist parties have to know that there are other parties out there that represent large segments of the population with a very different agenda. It takes meaningful competition between serious parties with different viewpoints to force modification of deeply-held agendas.

There is a broader point about competition. It must be encouraged and stimulated where there isn’t any at present. Because the Islamist parties are often fringe parties, they become the only real opposition when the non-religious parties are held down, or co-opted by a non-democratic government. This is the case all over the Middle East. These governments aim for a high degree of political organisation without democracy. In so doing, they marginalise the non-religious parties, because these are the opposition they fear. When the system opens up however, the marginalised non-religious parties may not be able to provide the necessary competition to the Islamist parties.

Pakistan fits the model in some ways and not in others. There are well-established mass parties that are not religious in orientation — the PPP and PML-N — powerful competition to the Islamists. The government has reached out half-heartedly to these parties with one hand and tried to marginalise them with the other. This despite the clear convergence of their interests in defining and supporting “enlightened moderation”.

These two major parties, themselves, often appear uninterested in a coherent vision that would compete with the Islamists, and often attenuate their role as the Islamists’ natural competitor by joining the Islamist parties for purely cynical political reasons. The traditional tendency of the major political parties to eschew principle for short-term political gain continues to erode their credibility, with the people, and the government.

The Islamists, on the other hand, with their siren song for democratisation may be moving towards becoming the main opposition. In the long-term this could be bad news for a government espousing “enlightened moderation”. But, just like the mainline parties, the government continues to make political decisions on short-term considerations. When it is not in alliance with the Islamists, it often gives way to their demands on the slightest provocation. It is hard to see any difference between the government and the two mainline parties on that score.

Could this be a strategy to see if the Islamists succumb to democratic pressures and compromise? That seems unlikely. Ironically, their electoral paradox — weak support and little possibility of electoral success in most places, strength and better electoral prospects only in the two smaller provinces — gives the Islamist parties little incentive to modify their civilisational agenda.

I hope we are not witnessing in Pakistan the Middle Eastern scenario in which the non-religious parties are so marginalised that the Islamist parties become the only real opposition despite the limited appeal of their agenda. That is easily avoided by a little long-term thinking on the part of both the government and the two mainline parties. If “enlightened moderation” is to be maintained and expanded, they need to construct a workable and enlightened entente cordiale.

William Milam is a former US ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. He is currently at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC

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