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DEMOCRACY RISING
KUWAITIS' VOTE A NEW ARAB MILESTONE
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
June 23, 2006

Rola Dashti: One of 32 women candidates.

June 23, 2006 -- KUWAITIS go to the polls next week to elect a new National Assembly, which will in turn approve a new prime minister and Cabinet.

The Kuwaitis will be making history for a number of reasons. This is the first election in which women are allowed to vote. And - much to the chagrin of Islamists, who insist that women are unfit to play any role in politics - a number of women are standing, often on platforms of radial social and economic reforms.

With a native population of 1 million, Kuwait is one of the smallest states in the Arab League. Yet its election is certain to have an important impact on broader Arab politics.

The exercise will help consolidate the idea of holding elections as a means of securing access to power - something new and still fragile in most Arab states. Days before the Kuwaitis were due to go to the polls, the United Arab Emirates announced that it, too, would opt for a parliamentary system based on elections. This means that all but five of the Arab states are now committed to holding reasonably clean elections at municipal and/or national levels.

Some of this new interest in elections is due to the impact of Iraq on the broader Arab imagination. With a mixture of admiration and terror, Arab ruling elites saw how Saddam Hussein's regime - regarded as the strongest of the Arab despotic structures in recent memory - collapsed within three weeks. The message was clear: An Arab regime without some mandate from the people is never more than a house of cards.

Next, the Arab masses saw millions of Iraqis lining up to cast ballots in several local elections, a referendum and two general elections, all within a couple of years.

Even several radical Islamist movements have converted to elections, as opposed to armed jihad, as a means of winning power. How sincere that conversion proves to be in the long run remains an open question; still, groups that had always claimed that elections were nothing but a "plot hatched by Jews and Crusaders" to confuse Muslims have been forced to admit that the Arab masses, given the chance, take to elections like ducks to water.

Not all Arab elections held since the Bush Doctrine burst into the Middle East can be regarded as genuine. Some despotic regimes have held votes that amounted to little more than a compliment that vice pays to virtue. In some countries, however - Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Kuwait and Iraq are the main examples - each election has been more credible than the one before, with prospects of further improvements in future.

Disappointed by the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian election and the strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood in last year's polls in Egypt, some doubt the wisdom of pushing for elections in the Muslim world - arguing that, because Arab and other Muslim masses lack a broad political culture, they are likely to opt for Islamist parties that appear familiar and thus trustworthy.

Yet this ignores several facts. To start with, several Arab countries had some experience of modern secular political parties before a succession of coups d'etat produced a wave of left-wing military regimes. For much of the 1940s and part of the 1950s, avowedly Islamist movements played only a marginal role in Arab politics. In some cases, the new military rulers tried to win legitimacy by seizing control of the secular parties and, in time, transforming them into instruments of brute power.

And radical Islamists have never managed to win a majority of votes in any Arab election so far. (Hamas pulled less than 44 percent of the popular vote but won a majority in the Palestinian parliament thanks to a bizarre electoral system.) Even in Saudi Arabia, the stronghold of radical Islamism, last year's municipal elections showed that, at least in the kingdom's urban centers, there was no Islamist majority.

Persuading and, when necessary, forcing Arab states to hold elections is important for another reason. Throughout history, Arab states claimed legitimacy based on divine mandate. In more recent times, regimes built around military juntas developed another theory of legitimacy - this time based on the myth of revolution. Both theories denied lesser mortals the right to bestow or withdraw legitimacy.

The holding of elections, however, is a clear admission that the principal basis for legitimacy is the will of the people as freely expressed through ballot boxes. In well-established democracies, this may sound trite; in Arab societies, it is a revolutionary idea. Thus, every election held in any Arab country must be regarded as a major event.

The Kuwaiti election has attracted keen interest throughout the region for another reason. Kuwait is the only Arab state in which virtually all political sensibilities - from radical Islamist to radical secularist - are openly competing for power. And, because Kuwaitis enjoy a degree of freedom of expression unknown in any other Arab state apart from new Iraq, the election has provided an opportunity for a lively debate which, though primarily aimed at the state's half a million voters, is also addressed at peoples throughout the region.

"For us, taking part in the elections is like getting a bite of the forbidden fruit," says one woman candidate. There are millions of people, men and women, in all Arab countries, who would love to have a bite of their own.

Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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