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TWO CHEERS IN ORDER

One of the reasons that democracy is so rare in the swath of Muslim countries from Pakistan to Morocco is that both the local regimes and the United States of America are terrified that the Islamist extremists would come to power if there were free elections. Two recent elections seem to support this.

Start with Turkey, whose voters have just given an Islamic party an overwhelming majority in parliament: 363 seats out of 550. Yet, the leader of the victorious Justice and Development Party (AKP), Recep Tayyip Erdogan, cannot legally become prime minister, having been banned from contesting as he has been convicted of inciting religious hatred.

In 1995, Erdogan proclaimed that “the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are waiting for the Turkish people to rise up.” He did four months in jail in 1998 for reciting before an excited crowd a poem with the lines, “Mosques are our barracks, minarets our bayonets, domes our helmets, the believers our soldiers.” Secular Turkey’s laws and its army will not allow that sort of talk in public. But would they dare to remove a party that has just won almost two-thirds of the seats in parliament'

Democratic veils

Cut to Pakistan, where last month’s parliamentary election was supposed to drape a democratic veil over the rule of Pervez Musharraf. The polling was clean by Pakistani standards, but the usual machinations before the vote delivered 77 seats to the newly created pro-military party, ahead of the 62 seats won by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party. The only surprise: the conservative tribal voters along the Afghan border gave 48 seats to the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, an alliance of six small Islamist parties.

Now the PPP has created the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy with 14 smaller parties — and has formed a coalition with the MMA that has a clear majority in parliament. If Musharraf doesn’t step in to stop him, Maulana Fazlur Rahman of the MMA, who once urged “holy war” against the US president, George W. Bush, and regards the taliban as his friends, may soon become prime minister of the world’s newest nuclear power.

That’s about it for democracy in west Asia, apart from the gallant experiment in little Qatar and a few halfway-democratic countries like Iran and Jordan.

Some good results too

Pakistan’s democracy has mostly been precarious, but it has not always produced “bad results”. The alliance between Bhutto and the Islamists was a purely tactical move to discredit the dictator’s election by forcing him to show his hand, and it has succeeded. On Thursday, Musharraf postponed the opening of parliament by a week to give his own tame politicians of the Pakistan Muslim League more time to put together an alternative coalition.

If Pakistan were to get real democracy, the PPP and the MMA would never be caught in bed together, nor would the radical Islamists ever win power in a free election. Pakistan’s problem is not democracy, nor Islamism, but corrupt politicians, ambitious generals, and the poor and ignorant population.

Turkey is a richer and better educated country with a much stronger democratic tradition, but a troubled economy, and at each national election for the past 12 years the voters have lurched in a different direction in a desperate search for a solution. Having run through all the other alternatives, they have now picked the “Islamic” party, but Erdogan doesn’t have much room for manoeuvre, and he knows it.

AKP supporters call themselves “Muslim democrats”and there is no reason to disbelieve them. Erdogan says he is determined to defend secularism, back the US alliance, and join the European Union.

If ex-communists can turn into legitimate democratic leaders in eastern Europe, then former radical Islamists can take the democratic road too. “Islamism” is a political response to oppression, and can be profoundly anti-democratic. Islam is a religion, and entirely compatible with democracy. What west Asia needs is more democracy, not less.

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