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In a year of many elections, Muslim ones stand out

Elections in Indonesia, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Tunisia could further redefine Islam's role in Muslim countries still learning the ways of democracy.

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    Muslim women cast ballots during the April 9 parliamentary election in Indonesia.
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By the end of 2014, about 40 percent of the world’s population will have voted in democratic elections, making it a strong year in affirming democracy’s staying power. But also strong are a few elections in Muslim countries. Most of these voting exercises could further reinforce Islam’s ability to coexist within open and pluralistic societies, allowing public piety to remain distinct from a nation’s politics.

The best example of democracy and political Islam accommodating each other lies in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation. On April 9, this Southeast Asian nation of 240 million people held parliamentary elections, the fourth since a dictator was toppled in 1998. The results will heavily influence a presidential vote in July.

Early indications from Wednesday’s vote show the five Islamic parties won less than a third of the ballots, coming in behind the leading secular parties. Indonesian voters are more interested in pushing back poverty and corruption than favoring the conservative social agenda of the Muslim parties.

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With a national motto of “unity in diversity,” Indonesia remains a model for other Muslim nations of how Islam’s followers can remain religious in private life while embracing civic ideals such as equality and respect for minorities.

Another good example is Afghanistan. It held an election Saturday that was remarkable on two points: The Taliban could not make good on threats to disrupt the campaign or the balloting, and voter turnout was about 60 percent, indicating a public defiance of the Islamic militants’ antidemocratic stance. In addition, three vice-presidential candidates were women. With each new election since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghans reaffirm their desire for the process of democracy even as some elected officials seek laws that would discriminate against women.

A more mixed example is Turkey, which for more than a decade has been a positive model in showing how an elected Islamic party can rule – at least in boosting the economy.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party won most local elections on March 30, taking 45.5 percent of the vote. But with more challenges to his rule, Mr. Erdogan has adopted antidemocratic tactics, such as restricting the Internet. Much of his opposition comes from the grass-roots Islamic group, Gülen. It remains unclear if his desperate desire to stay in power will mar Turkey’s record of secular rule with a tolerance toward Islam.

A Muslim country that may usurp the Turkish model is Tunisia, the most successful of the Arab Spring countries in creating a democracy that also allowed an Islamic party to win. The party, Ennahda, was forced from power in January after losing popularity. New elections are expected by the end of the year.

Pakistan has no national elections this year, but its elected civilian leaders continue to find ways to roll back the influence of the military. They also display more backbone to stand up to the Pakistani Taliban.

All these countries provide valuable lessons to other Muslim countries still living under authoritarian rule, such as Syria and Saudi Arabia, or that are struggling to form an open democracy, such as Egypt and Libya. Egypt’s bad experience last year with the downfall of an elected leader from the Muslim Brotherhood shows the need to highlight successful examples of where Islam and democracy are making room for each other.


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