- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Three weeks ago, an alliance of religious parties known as the MMA made a show of force in the parliamentary elections in Pakistan, greatly increasing their share of national votes and gaining control of the two smaller of Pakistan's four provinces. Then, last Sunday, the pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) emerged victorious in the general elections in Turkey, capturing 35 percent of the vote and a majority of its own in the parliament. These electoral results in two major allies in the war on terrorism have been largely misread as a proof of rising Islamic militancy. However, these results are due not to an increase in Islamic extremism, but to deeper social and political problems in these countries.
A revival of religiosity has been observable both in Pakistan and Turkey in recent years, just as it has in the United States. However, this phenomenon has only limited relevance to the electoral results, which have much more to do with decades of mismanagement and corruption at the hand of mainstream political parties, which have alienated mainly moderate populations.
Because of mismanagement, incompetence and corruption, the Turkish mainstream political parties have steadily declined from 1991 until the last election. The traditionally dominant center-right has gone from 52 percent in 1991 to 15 percent last Sunday, marred by internal bickering, fragmentation and corruption scandals. In its place, the predominantly conservative Turkish electorate has found itself forced to try new alternatives.
In 1995, this meant the pro-Islamic Welfare Party (WP). The WP came to power in 1996 and failed miserably, challenging the secular order of the country and being deposed by a backstage military intervention. Voters then deserted it, opting for the Nationalist Party (MHP). The Nationalists then took part in a coalition government that presided over Turkey's worst economic crisis in decades. The disgruntled electorate now moved to the only remaining non-establishment alternative, the moderate pro-Islamic AKP. Not so much because it was religious, but because it was an untried alternative that could perhaps do something about Turkey's economic problems. The AKP earned respect for its track record in administering Turkey's major cities such as Istanbul and Ankara successfully for the better part of a decade one reason that has prompted even some devout secularists to vote for them.
The Pakistani case is more complicated. Though Turkey is more secularized than Pakistan, religious parties have generally failed to attract the Pakistani electorate. Yet, in the last election, they moved forward considerably, capturing 52 (19 percent) of the seats in the National Assembly, leading to headlines of an extremist, anti-American wind blowing through the country. Yet, the MMA's advance was much more related to other social and political factors.
It was the first time that Pakistan's diverse and bickering religious parties appeared as a united front, instead of competing for the same seats.
Secondly, they benefited from the discrediting of the two mainstream political parties, the Muslim League and the People's Party, which were both twice in government in the 1990s and blatantly mismanaged the country.
Thirdly, Gen. Pervez Musharraf went out of his way to undermine these two parties, leaving the playing field open for the MMA, while the government-sponsored "King's Party" fared worse than expected. Also, observers often fail to note that the MMA only really gained votes in Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province, both bordering Afghanistan. In the populous Punjab and Sindh provinces, which elect 209 of the parliament's 272 members, the MMA only got nine seats. In Baluchistan and the NWFP, the MMA triumphed because the local people have felt a tangible sting from the war on terrorism.
Since September 11, Pashtuns that inhabit Pakistan's border regions with Afghanistan have seen their income from cross-border trade and smuggling decrease dramatically. Moreover, the 5 million-strong Tribal Areas were allowed to vote for the first time this year, adding 11 seats to the parliament from the most fiercely religious areas of the country, of which most were captured by the MMA.
The elections in Pakistan and Turkey should not be seen as a sign of Islamic extremism, for they are not. They testify to the deep political malaise of these two countries, and to the determination of voters to express their dissatisfaction with a discredited political establishment. These states are, and will remain, crucial U.S. allies, as long as proper attention is paid to their real internal problems and their grave economic dilemmas.

Svante E. Cornell is the editor of the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Johns Hopkins University-SAIS.

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