"Islamists Will Win Big in Free and Fair Elections."
Not necessarily. Many observers watching the events in the Arab world worry that expanding the political choices of Arab citizens will open the floodgates to a cascade of Islamist electoral landslides. They invoke the experience of Islamist victories in Algeria in 1991 and Palestine in 2006 as evidence for their concern.
This fear is overblown. Elections in which Islamists do well grab international attention, but do not represent the norm. Islamist parties have a long history of electoral participation in Muslim countries but usually only gain a small fraction of the vote. In their extensive study of Islamist political participation, published in the April 2010 Journal of Democracy, Charles Kurzman and Ijlal Naqvi find that most Islamist parties win less than 10 percent of the vote in the elections in which they participate.
It is true that after decades of autocracy, secular opposition parties in most Arab societies are weak and Islamists are sometimes the most organized alternative. Yet organization itself does not automatically guarantee electoral success. Given the powerful role of television and the Internet, electoral campaigns have often become as much about mass-media appeal as grassroots work. Especially in new democracies, charismatic candidates leading personalistic organizations and offering vague promises of change sometimes win out over better-organized groups (think President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia). In addition, Islamists may inspire strong loyalty among their core supporters, but winning elections requires appealing to the moderate majority. The protests sweeping the Arab world have so far been notable for their lack of Islamist or sectarian sentiment, and nowhere among the countries in flux is there a charismatic religious leader such as Ayatollah Khomeini ready to seize power.
An Islamist victory somewhere in the Middle East can't be ruled out, but that does not mean we will see a replay of Iran circa 1979. Never in the Arab world have any Islamist election gains resulted in a theocracy, and established Islamist parties across the region have proved willing to work within multiparty systems. Moreover, newly elected Islamists would not have free rein to impose theocracy. Whoever is elected president in Tunisia or Egypt will face mobilized populations with little patience for fresh dictatorial methods as well as secular militaries likely to resist any theocratic impulses.
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