Islamism Suffers as Voters Turn to Technocrats

Alongside exports, employment and growth, the financial crisis is claiming a less-talked-about victim: political Islam. In Muslim countries worldwide, voters have begun turning their backs on Islamist and other values-based parties in favor of dry but competent economic technocrats.

Take Turkey, where the religious Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered badly in local elections last month. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been ignoring calls from the business community for IMF help and had downplayed the effects of the credit crisis on Turkey, suggesting it was all psychological. Instead of financial issues, Erdogan campaigned on a variety of Islamist platforms, including criticism of Israel. But Turkish voters were preoccupied with more-domestic concerns: their economy contracted 6.2 percent in the last quarter of 2008 alone. And the AKP dropped 8 points in popular support and lost votes even in its Anatolian heartland.

A similar pattern played out in Indonesia last week. Poll results are still being tallied, but Islamists seem to have performed poorly, winning less than 25 percent of the total—down from 38 percent in 2004. In a February survey by polling agency LSI, 76 percent of respondents said the government should focus on economic development, while just 0.8 percent said that religion and moral values should animate the nation's politics. According to Robin Bush, country director for the Asia Foundation, the tough economic times have dramatically decreased Indonesian interest in an Islamist agenda—at least for now.

The next test will be Iran, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stands for reelection in June. In 2005, Ahmadinejad campaigned on ending corruption and putting oil wealth in the hands of the public. But he has failed on both accounts, while managing to drive up inflation and abolishing Iran's budget office. Former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi is now running against him by highlighting his own, better economic track record. Gary Sick, an Iran scholar at Columbia University, predicts Ahmadinejad will suffer in the coming election: "People will be spending more time and attention on survival and economic issues than on religious ideology," he says.

Not all Islamist parties are hurting equally. Lebanon's central bank insulated its leaders from the global crisis by making savvy economic moves like forbidding risky investments. When voters there go to the polls in June, they'll be free to focus on other issues, like ideology. Still, that could mean even worse news for the Islamists—because if Hizbullah's fortunes also sink, they'll have no one to blame but themselves.