Monday, July 07, 2003

Kuwaiti liberals, hopeful that the downfall of Saddam Hussein would strengthen their efforts at modernization, suffered a stunning setback in weekend Parliamentary elections, with traditionalists winning a sweeping victory.

The Islamic traditionalists, both Sunni and Shiite, took more than a third of the seats in the 50-seat Parliament in Saturday's voting, according to early unofficial results made public today. The liberals, meanwhile, were almost wiped out. Most of the rest of the seats appear to have gone to other groups that are supporters of the royal family.

Some would claim that this buttresses the leftist claim that democracy in the Middle East will simply result in the election of Islamic fundamentalists. Well maybe it will, but that's no real argument. What matters is not whether the Islamists are voted in, but whether they can be voted out again. As long as the democratic system remains intact, even the fundamentalists will have to answer to a) the electorate, b) the legal limits on their power inherent in a democratic system and c) the prospect of an imminent loss of power. As long as these factors remain in place, we have much less to worry about from Islamic parties winning elections. The danger revolves around a situation (as occurred in Algeria) where the Islamic party wins the election and then suspends the democratic system and installs itself as a totalitarian government. Bernard Lewis describes this as the Islamist concept of democracy: "one man, one vote, once". This clearly cannot be tolerated, but it is also no testament to the inherent weakness of the democratic system.


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