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Benador Associates Public Relations

HAMAS & W'S DOCTRINE
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
February 3, 2006

February 3, 2006 -- HELPING the Muslim world develop a democratic system of government has been at the core of the so-called "Bush Doctrine" since 2001 and a major theme in the president's State of the Union Address this week.

Opponents of the Bush Doctrine have mocked its "naiveté," claiming that any democratic elections in Muslim countries would sweep hard-line, anti-West Islamists to power. The latest election in the Palestinian territories, which produced a majority for Hamas, appears to back that claim. In fact, it does not.

The results of the Palestinian election should be seen as a freak produced by a combination of peculiar electoral rules and political uncertainties.

The elections took place at two levels: district and national. Hamas ended up with 74 out of 132 seats in the Palestinian National Assembly. It bagged 45 seats at the district level, 29 at the national level.

Hamas' strong showing at the district level was largely due to its well-entrenched presence in Gaza, where voter turnout was 81 percent. As Hamas' base, Gaza has always been inhospitable territory to secular parties, including President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah. Thanks to Gaza, Hamas won almost 44 percent of the district-level votes.

At the national level, however, Hamas collected just over 36 percent of the votes. Taking the two levels together, Hamas won only 40 percent of the popular vote — which means that 60 percent of the Palestinians voted against it.

Hamas' secular opponents had entered the race with 11 rival lists, fragmenting their electorate and allowing the Islamist group to win many more seats than its support base would warrant.

Thus, although Hamas has won a statistical majority in the Palestinian parliament, it does not represent the majority on the ground.

The whole situation becomes more complicated when one examines the results more closely. Pre- and post-election polls show that at least a quarter of those who voted for Hamas did so in protest against the corrupt and inefficient administration of the late Yasser Arafat and his "Tunisian" cohorts, exiles brought back from Tunisia in the'90s to run the Palestinian territories.

According to best estimates, Hamas' core support ranges between 20 to 25 percent of the electorate. But even then, this doesn't mean that so many Palestinians want an "Islamic" state, whatever that means. Nor does it mean support for any "wipe Israel off the map" strategy.

Post-election polls and anecdotal evidence show that anger against corruption and a thirst for revenge against the Fatah administration were key motives of the Hamas voters. More surprisingly, many of those who voted for Hamas say they did so to force it to negotiate with Israel.

The Palestinian election is not the first to give a huge number of seats to an Islamist party on the basis of a narrow electoral base. It happened four years ago in Turkey, when the Justice and Development (AK) Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan won two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly with a third of the votes. Before that, the Front for Islamic Salvation (FIS) had been poised to win two-thirds of the seats in Algeria's general election in 1991, again with a third of the votes.

Few elections in the Muslim world could be described as reasonably free and fair. But those that can be have never produced Islamist majorities.

In Malaysia, the Islamists have never won more than 11 percent of the vote; their counterparts in Bangladesh have never risen above 5 percent.

In last year's first-ever free elections in Afghanistan, Islamists of all description, including "reformed" Taliban, won 18 percent. And in Iraq's latest general election, support for hard-core Islamist parties, both Shiite and Sunni, was around 40 percent.

Iran is a more complicated case, because only regime-approved candidates are allowed to stand in elections — so each one is more like a primary within the same party rather than a genuine popular electoral exercise. Even then, every Iranian election has contained a strong dose of protest against the ruling mullahs.

So, should Bush abandon his "doctrine" for fear that free elections could bring anti-democratic Islamist parties to power? Definitely not.

The best way to kill the monster of Islamism is democracy. This has been borne out by Turkey's experience under the AK Party government. The anti-democratic elements within the Islamist movement have been marginalized, while the more moderate elements have realized that no modern society could be governed effectively on the basis of religious rules dating back to 14 centuries ago. The AK Party knows that it is under probation by the two-thirds of the Turkish electorate that did not vote for it and that any sign of Islamist madness could chase it out of power in the next election.

In time, Hamas, too, will learn that lesson. Democracy requires a good dose of patience.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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