The electoral success of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party and the likelihood that the
Muslim Brotherhood will do well in Egypt’s forthcoming elections has heightened fears in many quarters. Will Islamic parties always dominate such contests in the Middle East?
The electoral success of the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, the Justice and Development Party in Turkey and Hamas in Palestine suggest the answer is yes. But looking at a broader data set
– that is, the entire range of elections in which Islamic parties have taken part – reveals a different picture.
Islamic parties have stood for elections in more than 90 elections in more than 20 countries. But as scholars Charles Kurzman and Ijlal Naqvi argue in a fascinating study entitled "Do Muslims Vote Islamic?", judging by all the elections in the last 40 years, Islamic parties typically receive
only a small fraction of the vote.
In Pakistan, for example, the Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamic parties have contested elections for more than fifty years. These parties "reached a high-water mark of 18 per cent of seats in
the national parliament in 1977, then ebbed below 7 per cent over the next two decades. In 2002, a coalition of Islamic parties rebounded to garner 11 per cent of the vote and 17 per cent of seats
– a major recovery, but still representing only a small chunk of the electorate even in an election that several major parties boycotted."
In countries like Tunisia, Jordan, Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Palestine and soon Egypt, repression has allowed Islamic parties to promise a fresh and untainted start and tend to do well. But this was
not the case in Yemen or Indonesia. And after their initial breakthrough, Islamic parties have tended to fare worse. They’ve done better in Arab countries than elsewhere in the Muslim World,
winning 15 per cent more seats on average. But as the authors say, "the more routine elections become, the worse Islamic parties do in them."
A lot will depend on how the parties govern – and whether they will be able to blame the West for their own failings. But the academic research is a good antidote to the breathless reactions