“Islam’s political advantage” has big implications for new Democracies in the Middle East

By: Thomas B. Pepinsky

There are two general explanations for why Islamic parties are popular in Muslim majority countries. One is that voters like the religious ideology that these parties espouse. But a competing explanation is that voters actually just want to support reformist parties with economic policies that they like, and only Islamists are believable as reformists. While both explanations are plausible, figuring out which one matters is quite difficult, for two reasons. First, there are few examples from which to learn: there are very few cases of Muslim majority democracies in which Islamist parties can be compared to other parties to see what voters care about. Second, even when Islamist parties are in free elections, it is still difficult to untangle reformism from Islamism in the minds of their supporters.

In our recent article, “Testing Islam’s Political Advantage: Evidence from Indonesia” we introduced a new way to answer this old question by focusing on the case of Indonesia, which is the world’s largest Muslim country and also a vibrant democracy where multiple Islamist parties and non-Islamist parties compete in free elections. We then conducted a large national survey of voters in which we asked voters how much they supported various parties, but with a twist: we used hypothetical parties, not actual parties, and randomly assigned each party an ideology (Islamist or not) and an economic platform (good, bad, or unclear).

What we found was surprising. Indonesian voters are no more likely to support Islamist parties than non-Islamist parties when the parties have good economic policies. However, when parties’ economic platforms are unclear, voters have a preference for Islamists. What this means is that economic reformism really is the most important thing for Indonesian voters–they even find that this pattern holds among voters who wish to implement sharia law. However, parties have to be perceived as credible reformists, because if they are not, then religion matters. We term this phenomenon “Islam’s political advantage,” and it has big implications for new democracies in the Middle East after the Arab Spring. It suggests that liberal and nationalist parties in countries like Egypt must convince voters that they too have reformist credentials and popular economic platforms, and also that burnishing their religious credentials only matters if they cannot be credible reformists.

About the Author: Thomas Pepinski is an associate professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University.Testing Islam’s Political Advantage: Evidence from Indonesia” by Pepinsky, Thomas B. PepinskyR. William Liddle and Saiful Mujan  appeared in the July 2012 issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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