THE PAPER | The Future of Islamist Voters
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THE PAPER | The Future of Islamist Voters

By Miquel Pellicer and Eva Wegner
GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies

Image Attribute: Iraqi voters inked fingers, 16 February 2005 / Source: Wikipedia

Image Attribute: Iraqi voters inked fingers, 16 February 2005 / Source: Wikipedia 

We have seen that people who vote for Islamist parties are generally well integrated into their societies. But if social differences are not the answer, what is it that distinguishes Islamist party voters? 

For a long time, researchers drew conclusions about these voters by comparing Islamist thought and the practices of Islamist parties, movements and organizations with idealized Western expectations. Many studies were conducted about exactly how moderate Islamists could be, that is, how much liberal-democratic thought they include in their discourse and programs (Schwedler 2006; Schwedler 2011; Wickham 2004). Likewise, attitudes towards women or the percentage of women in Islamist parties – often in comparison with European countries – were measured.

Recent research has adopted other methods and explanatory approaches, contextualizing party positions and practices as well as voter attitudes in Middle Eastern and North African societies. This is of crucial significance since these generally very conservative groups will always appear “negative” when compared with Western ideals. In the representative opinion polls of the World Values Survey in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Palestine, and Yemen, for example, 80 percent of respondents believe that men are more suited to be political leaders than women; only six per cent believe that divorce can be justified; and fewer than one percent approve of homosexuality.

An unpublished study on election behavior in the Middle East and North Africa by Cavatorta and Wegner (2014) also uses survey data (the World Values Survey and the Afrobarometer) to compare the values of Islamist party voters with those of average voters and voters for secular parties. The study reveals that after eliminating factors such as education, sex, and age, voters for Islamist parties are more conservative than other groups with regards to divorce and women’s emancipation. In connection with the findings, about the social background of Islamist voters, it can be said that this group of voters consists of relatively well-educated, well-integrated members of society, who tend to have more conservative values than others. The study’s authors interpret this as evidence of “programmatic” voting – that Islamist party voters are not mobilized by clientelistic promises, but rather with party platforms that reflect their values.

Another study about Islamist voters’ attitudes, based on data from the Arab Barometer, reaches similar conclusions (Robbins 2010). The study emphasizes two additional factors: First, frustration about corruption in countries such as Palestine, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria is closely correlated with support for Islamist parties. Second, voters for Islamist parties consider that their (non-Islamist) governments perform very badly. These factors are consistent with the middle-class profile of Islamist voters described above, and underscore the Islamist party voters, too, expect concrete improvements from Islamists in government and base their support on tangible results.

As a whole, support for Islamist parties is not clientelistic. On the contrary, even in countries where Islamists provide social services for many people, voters for Islamist parties are not less educated than voters for “more secular” parties. Furthermore, these voters support the main points in Islamist party platforms that include conservative social values and the need to fight corruption.

Islamist voters have little political influence following the authoritarian backlashes that took place in some “Arab Spring” countries. The change in direction was particularly radical in Egypt, where the military coup of 2013 led to mass imprisonments, mass trials and a large number of death sentences for members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was declared a terrorist group and banned. But even in Morocco, the Islamist Party for Justice and Development (PJD) is, at best, only formally in charge of the government: The king still runs the show, and ever more legislation is being drafted to reduce political transparency.

In this context, the question arises about the future direction of Islamist voters. Surveys made between 2011 and 2013 described them as the group who considered that politics and democracy were most important. That could change, perhaps increasing these voters’ alienation from institutional politics, further swelling the large ranks of non-voters or pushing them towards a radicalism that would swell the ranks of extremists.

About the Authors:

Dr. Miquel Pellicer and Dr. Eva Wegner are researchers at the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies. Their research includes the causes for political clientelism, political participation under authoritarian regimes and social inequality.

Cite this Article:

Pellicer, Miquel ; Wegner, Eva ; GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies - Leibniz-Institut für Globale und Regionale Studien (Ed.): Who votes for Islamist parties - and why?. Hamburg, 2015 (GIGA Focus International Edition 1). URN:

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