10 February 2006

Hamas's Lesson?

Gary LaMoshi at AsiaTimesOnlinedotcom proffers the thought that the spread of democracy in muslim climes will not garner the results anticipated.
DENPASAR, Bali - Observers have focused on one obvious lesson from Hamas' victory in the Palestinian election: democracy in the Middle East may not produce the results the United States wants. But there's a larger global lesson particularly applicable in Indonesia, the latest US poster country for democracy in the Muslim world.

The Bush administration's embrace of democracy as the answer for the Middle East is another symptom of its allergy to unwelcome facts. The theory proposes that democracy will produce regimes friendly to US policies. That just ain't so.

If the US theory worked in Israel, the closest thing to a democracy in the region, then Shimon Peres would have been Prime Minister for the past decade, rather than the Likudniks. If it worked in Iran, the most democratic Muslim country there, the world wouldn't be fretting over potential nuclear-weapons development.

In Latin America, democracy first produced a wave of free marketers the US could love; later results show a swing to the left, including virulently anti-US Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Democracy produces results that are far more likely to reflect the aspirations and hopes of people on the street, based on local issues, than the dreams of the White House.

This lesson isn't new. US policymakers have known it for decades and, current rhetoric aside, it's doubtful they've forgotten it. From the Shah of Iran to the House of Saud, Sese Seko Mobutu to Ferdinand Marcos, Augusto Pinochet to Park Chung-hee, the US has traditionally favored "our SOB" (an apocryphal quote attributed to presidents as far back as Franklin Roosevelt) over free and fair elections. Often, the US predicted chaos if its man fell, and in some cases, such as the former Zaire, it's been proved right.

Today in the Middle East, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Saudi royals suffer occasional public prodding over a lack of democracy. But it's just lip service, similar to US 1960s and 1970s criticism of apartheid South Africa. It's the same with that great US ally in its global "war on terror", Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf.

While the US habitually encourages democratic window-dressing and sometimes wins marginal concessions, if push comes to shove, those regimes know the US will be in their corner for strategic reasons, whatever they do or don't do at the ballot boxes.

In Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the US fears that full-blown democracy could lead to the same results as in the Palestinian election: a victory for radical Islamic parties. US analysis is probably correct, and the Hamas victory illustrates why.

Hamas' venomous views on Israel get virtually all the attention in the US, but those weren't the deciding factor in the Palestinian election. Palestinians didn't vote to push Israel into the sea, but to toss corrupt Fatah officials off the boat. Former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat reportedly stashed away billions during his decades as head of Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Despite a steady stream of aid dollars from the United Nations, the West and the Gulf states, average Palestinians have seen little progress or development. The key to Hamas' victory was that voters perceived it as honest, a reputation aided by a social-services network benefiting ordinary Palestinians.

That doesn't mean Hamas is a bunch of boy scouts. Voters may have cast their ballots against corruption, but they also get "death to Israel" as part of the Hamas package. Palestinians saw corruption as their overriding concern, and either ignored the rest or decided it was an acceptable price for cleaner government. As much as the struggle with Israel, corruption had become an obvious, if not unbearable, burden in the daily lives of average Palestinians, and they seized the opportunity to do something about it at the ballot box. Saudis and Egyptians would, too, most likely, as Pakistanis have when given the chance.

In Indonesia, a similar scenario may be unfolding, with the US working the wrong side of the street. Indonesia places in the top five in global corruption rankings, largely thanks to the legacy of the (US-backed) Suharto regime. Democratically elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has made fighting corruption a top priority, but progress has been spotty.

The Indonesian military, the centerpiece of Suharto's New Order, remains the nexus of much of Indonesia's corruption, but it also remains largely beyond the reach of civilian authorities. US moves to restore full ties with the military will only serve to strengthen its clout and broaden its impunity (see US 'national security' favors Indonesian thugs, December 2, 2005).

One political party has made corruption its top issue and gained growing appeal, the Prosperous Justice Party (known by its Indonesian abbreviation PKS, which, ironically, also abbreviates the politically correct term for prostitute). PKS was one of just two parties to gain votes in the 2004 legislative elections compared with the 1999 national vote. At its national convention last August, PKS targeted 20% of the vote, which would place it in the top three among Indonesia's political parties, if not the largest, and allow it to run a presidential candidate.

Chosen Speaker of the People's Consultative Assembly, then-PKS leader Hidayat Nur Wahid (no relation to former Indonesian president and reformist cleric Abdurrahman Wahid) won plaudits with a declaration that he would forgo many of the job's perks, including the fancy limousine and hotel suite.

His act underscored how far PKS stands out from other parties: PKS portrays itself as privileged to serve the public, while Indonesian politicians typically view service as an entitlement to privilege (see Indonesia's transition: The good, the bad and the ugly, October 20, 2004).

PKS is an Islamic party, known for working at the grassroots level through mosques, and some adherents fear that the pursuit of political power has distracted it from its original mission, preaching. In its campaigns, PKS plays down extremist Islamist positions and shrouds its support for sharia (Islamic) law. In the Far Eastern Economic Review last May, Sadanand Dhume sounded alarm bells about PKS's fanaticism, an article that may have been more extreme than any PKS views.

There is no comparison between Hamas and PKS, except that they are both Islam-based parties that have gained by following the Koran's invocation of dakwah, good works on Earth. The point is not how far apart they are or how radical PKS may be now or become later. The point is that Islamism isn't what wins votes.

In the 2004 vote, PKS also became the biggest party in Jakarta's city council. There's no plurality for sharia in Jakarta, by far Indonesia's most cosmopolitan and pluralistic urban center. But Jakarta is also arguably Indonesia's corruption center, and its municipal government is famously unresponsive and dysfunctional, except for funneling wealth to officials.

Like their Palestinian counterparts, Jakarta voters were ready to accept or ignore PKS's Islamist baggage in favor of a more pressing issue. Indonesia's Islamic parties have polled roughly a third of the vote in every legitimate national election, but the door is wide open for PKS or more radical parties, if they can establish and retain their anti-corruption credentials, to succeed across Indonesia.

Corruption, not Islamism, is the issue that's going to win hearts and minds in Indonesia, and the sooner Washington realizes that, the better the chances that secular, moderate parties will continue to carry the day. It's not about supporting the military as a bulwark against radicalism, it's about encouraging clean government. If Bill Clinton's political adviser James Carville had the White House's ear, he'd frame the issue in a way even George W Bush could understand it: It's the corruption, stupid.
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